Movie Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)


Title: Iron Man 2
Release Date: May 7, 2010
Director: Jon Favreau
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

I had strong feelings against Iron Man, which I found jingoistic in its support of Bush-era foreign policy and overly fawning of neoliberal ideals equating wealthy enterpreneurs with natural leaders.  But, from watching all the Avengers movies, the character of Tony Stark clearly mellows and evolves.  And I can’t deny that Robert Downey, Jr. is a talented actor who puts his all into the character.  So, I thought I’d give Iron Man 2 a chance.

And, omigod, Tony Stark is possibly even more irritating in this movie than in his debut. Much of the film depicts Stark wallowing in his fame and basically becoming a burden to everyone he knows and cares about him.  His transfer of Stark Industries to Pepper Potts is logical and deserved, but there’s no way she would want to form a romantic relationship with him.  And politically, this movie again panders to a right-wing vision of America, and even has cameos by Elon F’in Musk and Bill F’in O’Reilly.

Ok, calm yerself.  So, the villain in this piece is Ivan Vanko who is played laconically by Mickey O’Rourke, which I did find an entertaining performance, although the “evil genius dead set on personal vengeance for no clearly articulated reason” trope is rather tiresome.  As someone obsessed with the New York World’s Fairs, I was also pleased to see that in the MCU the Flushing Meadows fairgrounds were home to the 1974 Stark Expo which Tony reopens during this story.  Even better, Tony watches an old film of Howard Stark talking about the Stark Expo which is clearly modeled on Walt Disney’s promotional films for EPCOT.  This film was in production before Disney acquired Marvel, but I wonder if the filmmakers sensed what was coming and did this as a purposeful tribute. This movie also marks the debut of Scarlett Johannsen in the MCU.  I’m curious if anyone was surprised by the reveal of her true character when this was first released.

So, I don’t know, your mileage may vary, but I found Iron Man 2 a mediocre action movie with bad politics that left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Thor: The Dark World


Title: Thor: The Dark World
Release Date: November 8, 2013
Director: Alan Taylor
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

This movie is an improvement on its predecessor.  Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston, fresh off their key performances in The Avengers, have really settled into their characters and have a great chemistry playing off one of one another as Thor and Loki.  Loki in particular does really well as the trickster in this movie and his shifting allegiances keep one on one’s toes, although they’re never written in a way that’s illogical to the plot.  Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) is back and has a more meaningful role as a character in her own right, as does her assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings).  Thor’s mother Freya (Rene Russo) and the bridge sentry Heimdall (Idris Elba), who I didn’t even mention in my Thor review, are also fleshed out a lot more.

Unfortunately, the plot of this movie is meh.  The villains this time are Dark Elves who seem interchangeable with the Frost Giants.  Christopher Eccleston is a talented actor wasted in the role of Malekith, who is just another dude with heavy layers of prosthetic makeup who wants to destroy the universe.  The film’s Earth setting replaces New Mexico with London, and the battle scenes feel derivative of a Doctor Who finale.  The Dark Elves even look a little like Cybermen and Eccleston, a former Doctor, is there.  The romance between Thor and Foster never really takes off as an interesting plot, so it’s not surprising that she seems to have been written out of the MCU.

Looks like third time will be the charm for making a really good Thor movie.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Thor (2011)


Title: Thor
Release Date: May 6, 2011
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Watching the MCU movies out of order means coming to Thor and realizing that at this point in the series they actually played it straight and with very little humor.  It comes off as odd, and less than satisfying and makes me grateful for the tonal changes they made to the characters in the Avengers movies and Thor: Ragnarok.  Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston just haven’t really found their way into the roles of Thor and Loki yet.  And from the retrospective view, the fact that they tried to hide Loki’s villainy and make his heel-turn a big twist is unintentionally hilarious.

The basic plot of the film is that Thor is eager to wage war, and uses the opportunity of a break in by some of Asgard’s ancient enemies The Frost Giants, to in turn lead a band of friends and Loki to attack the Frost Giants.  Thor’s father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) punishes Thor by stripping him of his power, enchanting his hammer Mjölnir so that it may only be picked up when he is worthy, and exiling him to Earth.

On Earth he’s befriended by astrophysicist Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and Marvel once again admirally casts a talented woman in a role as a scientest and then shamefully underuses the character as mainly a love interest.  The movie could’ve also used more of Foster’s assistant Darcy (Kat Dennings) who brings some needed comic relief to this overserious movie.  The plot is pretty boring and generic, and I think this movie is pretty skippable, even if you really love Thor and Loki in the latter movies.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Incredible Hulk (2008)


Title: The Incredible Hulk
Release Date: June 13, 2008
Director: Louis Leterrier
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

To prepare myself for Avengers: Endgame, I spent part of my April watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies I hadn’t seen yet.  It helped that some of them recently became available to stream without a premium charge.

The Incredible Hulk is tonally unlike most every other film in the ongoing series.  In retrospect, the MCU pretty much disowned it so not much introduced in this movie was followed up on. Edward Norton would be replaced by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner, and while Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America would all get trilogies of their own, the Hulk would only appear in ensemble films.  I would say both of these decisions paid off.

The movie condenses the whole origin story of the Hulk to a wordless sequence of images in the opening credits.  The story begins five years later with Bruce Banner hiding in Brazil and working in a bottling plant while sending computer messages to a mysterious Mr. Blue who may be able to cure him of his Hulk-ism.  Banner is discovered and it leads to a cat and mouse game of chases in Brazil and then back in the U.S.

The Hulk takes his time to appear on screen. In the first action setpiece, we get glimpses of the Hulk akin to a horror film like Alien.  The second action setpiece presents him more like King Kong.  By this time he’s reunited with Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), a scientist and love interest, who sadly doesn’t get much to do besides sterotypical women roles.  The final battle is set in New York City and brings a lot of collateral damage to Harlem, but somehow never gets mentioned in Luke Cage.

The Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are sometimes the heroes, sometimes cannon fodder, and sometimes comic relief.  Here they are the bad guys, relentlessly hunting Banner down to use the Hulk as a weapon.  They’re lead by the villainous Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt), who is one of the characters who’s gone on to appear in other MCU films, but I always forget about him.  Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) is an even more ridiculous over-the-top character, a Russian soldier who becomes addicted to supersoldier serum in order to become a killing machine.  His plot is pretty much copied in the Jessica Jones series with the character Wil Simpson.

Norton does a good job of displaying the fraility and anxiety of Banner, but the film doesn’t really give him the opportunity to explore relationships or emotions.  And there’s none of the humor we associate with Ruffalo’s Hulk, as this film is basically humorless.  I have only vague memories of the 1970s Hulk tv series, but as this movie reminds me of contemporary MCU tv series like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage (in both the good and bad senses), I wonder if Norton’s Hulk may have also worked out better as a television series.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Captain Marvel (2019)


Title: Captain Marvel
Release Date: March 8, 2019
Director: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The latest Marvel superhero debut movie is kind of origin story in reverse where we meet a superhero in action and unravel her past along the way. Vers (Brie Larson) is a member of the alien people known as Kree, has superstrength, and serves on the Starforce, fighting a generational war against their shapeshifting enemies, the Skrull.  Vers cannot remember her past, but has a recurring nightmare about being in a battle with an older woman. On a mission, Vers is captured by the Skrull, and making her escape, crash lands on Earth in 1995.

Defying orders from her commander and mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), Vers begins to investigate a link between her dreams and this strange planet she’s landed upon.  She also attracts the attention of the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg).  With Skrull on their heels, Vers befriends Fury (younger and more cheerful and naive than we’ve seen him in other films) and they head on a buddy road trip.  Along the way they pick up a clever, orange tabby cat named Goose (the MVP of this movie who deserves a spinoff), and  former Air Force pilot Maria Lambeau (Lashana Lynch), with her adorable and scene-stealing daughter Monica (Akira Akbar).

There are some big twists in this plot line, of course, which I’ll go into in the spoiler section below.  This is the first MCU film with a woman as the lead character which is a little bit surprising partly because Wonder Woman felt like it belongs in the Marvel universe and partly because there are a number of prominent women characters in the Marvel universe.  Nevertheless, this is an about time moment for Marvel, and the plot hinges on the fact that in patriarchical societies women with great talent, intelligence, and power are held back from reaching their full potential by men (and sometimes even by other women).  Apparently there are members of my gender out there who were too dim to see this plot, though.

The movie is set in the 1990s, so the soundtrack is scored well to some alternative rock hits of the era.  There are a few jokes based on being in that era (Vers falling into a Blockbuster video, Vers disguising herself in a grunge outfit, the great impatience of waiting for a computer to open a file), but they don’t everdue the nostalgic memory of an era in place of the reality that some movies do.  I’m particurlarly fond of how well Larson and Jackson work together, as they have a lot of chemistry, which is nice since they are basically the new kid and the veteran of 8 MCU films thus far.  Lynch is also a character who works well with both Larson and Jackson, and I hope we’ll be seeing more of her in the MCU.

There are a lot of action sequeneces as you would expect from a superhero epic, although I think they’re secondary to Vers journey to becoming Captain Marvel.  Although, as an archivist I do appreciate that there’s a fight scene set among compact library shelving.   This is an entertaining, humorous, and inspiring film, and among Marvel’s best work.

Rating: ****

 

SPOILER SECTION

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Okay, if you’ve scrolled down this part, you’re ready for my thoughts on some of the film’s plot twists.  First of all, I totally misled myself on where the story was going even though the clues were there.  I was convinced that Vers was actually a Kree and would take on an Earth identity as Carol Danvers as opposed to her being born on Earth.  Very dumb of me, I know.

I also felt that the transition from the Skrull being villainous and hunting down Vers to actually being refugees attempting to escape the Kree happened very suddenly.  Maybe there were clues and I just missed them, but it seemed abrubt when Talos (Ben Mendelsohn) wandered in wearing a turtleneck and sipping a soda, and suddenly everyone believed him.  They also laid it on thick with the cute Skrull kids in the refugee camp on the space station, which is just a cheezy the way to build sympathy.  I’m not saying I don’t like the way the story went though, just got a little whiplash.

Movie Review: Ant-Man and Wasp (2018)


TitleAnt-Man and Wasp
Release Date: July 6, 2018
Director: Peyton Reed
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The second Ant-Man film and part 20 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sees Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) making the best of his house arrest with much improved relations with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), as well as his ex-wife and her new husband.  With three days left until his release, Lang is pulled into a plot by Hank Pym (Michael Douglass) and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly with a better haircut) to help rescue Janet van Dyne (the original Wasp, played by Michelle Pfeiffer) from the quantum realm.  In a madcap series of adventures the trio find their plans foiled by a series of foes including mobster Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), another of Pym’s former colleagues Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a woman who can phase through objects called Ghost (aka Ava Starr, played by Hannah John-Karmen), and FBI agent Jimmy Woo (Randall Park).  Any one of these antagonists would’ve been boring and cliched in a typical MCU film, but rotating through them so that our heroes are constantly on their toes is done very effectively.

The ending is foreshadowed well enough in advance to not be a surprise (spoiler: they rescue Janet and Janet heals Ghost), so the fun is seeing how they get to that point in a series of hijinks and chase scenes, using the Pym particle devices.  I’m reminded of visiting San Francisco with my father as a child and him telling me that they like to film car chases there because of the hills, used effectively in the movie.  But the key to Ant-Man and Wasp is the humor which is laugh out loud funny.  The MVP here is Michael Peña as Luis, Scott’s friend and business partner who brings the laughs and save everyone’s butts.

Rating: ***1/2

Previous MCU Films:

TV Review: Luke Cage (2018)


Title: Luke Cage
Release Dates: 2018
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

The second season of Marvel’s Luke Cage is a lot like the first season in that it has some remarkable high points that make it compelling television, yet is mired with so many writing, storytelling, and acting flaws.  I find myself rooting for Luke Cage to be the stylish, yet socially conscious drama that examines the problems of contemporary Black American communities through the lens of superhero tropes it wants to be, and constantly disappointed when it fails.

Let’s focus on the good first:

Acting – there are once again some excellent performances that help carry this show.  I’m particularly impressed by Theo Rossi as Hernan “Shades” Alvarez who really came into his own in a bigger role this season, and his troubled friendship with Comanche is especially well acted.  I was kind of hoping that Shades wouldn’t so much turn good by the end of the season, but at least become a “frenemy” who works with Luke, which I suppose is still possible in future episodes.

The new antagonist John “Bushmaster” McIver played by Mustafa Shakir is also a good addition.  Bushmaster’s Ahab-like obsession gets kind of ridiculous, so it’s a credit to Shakir that he does so well with the convoluted writing and characterization.  Bushmaster is a brutal and cruel character and yet I was really able to feel empathy for him, and again was kind of hoping he would be redeemed and ally himself in some way with Luke.

Other good performances include: Reg E. Cathey bringing gravitas to underdeveloped role as Luke’s father, James Lucas. Chaz Lamar Shepherd provides a humorous spark as Raymond “Piranha” Jones.  And Rosario Dawson is good as always as Claire.  Alfre Woodward tends to get melodramatic as Mariah this season, but it’s still Alfre Woodward, who is always worth watching.

Direction – The show has a distinctive style of cinematography and staging that I really enjoy.  The show’s makers do a good job of choreographing fight scenes, and filming even simple conversations from intriguing angles. It’s also really good at just showing Harlem, and making Jamaican Crown Heights look distinctively different.

Music – Live performances at the Harlem Paradise are a highlight of any Luke Cage episode.  This season we get to see Gary Clark, Jr., Esperanza Spalding, Ghostface Killah, Stephen Marley, Faith Evans and Jadakiss, KRS-One, and Rakim, among others.  The music used to score the episodes is also universally well-selected and suited to the scenes and stories.

And I’m surprised to say this, but Danny Rand’s guest appearance actually worked well.  Danny and Luke have good chemistry, and if this was a trial balloon for a Luke Cage/Iron Fist spin-off comedy/action/drama, I’m all for it.

And now the bad:

Gratuitous violence – a crime drama is going to have it’s fair share of violence, but Luke Cage seems to revel in depicting it this season, particularly in a key scene of a massacre in a Jamaican restaurant.  Not only does the camera linger on the most gruesome aspects, but the entire scene is replayed as a flashback in the next episode! In a media environment where Black bodies are often seen as disposable, it’s particularly troublesome to see this done in a show that is supposed to be empowering.

Inconsistent characterization – A lot of the characters seem to have their motivations shift constantly to whatever the plot needs them to do.  This is especially true of Luke Cage is constantly said to struggling with things – his father, Claire, being a hero – and then having those struggles easily resolved or dropped until they’re needed again to create “drama.” The apparent heel turn he takes at the end of the season really feels like it came out of nowhere.

Misty Knight was one of the best characters of the first season, but here her story arc is that she’s a renegade cop reacting against the bureaucracy.  Except for most of the season, everything she does makes her look like a really crappy cop, which makes the character look stupid rather than heroic.

Finally, there’s Gabrielle Dennis as Tilda Johnson, Mariah’s estranged daughter.  She goes from compassionate doctor to dupe to righteously angry to femme fatale on whatever whims the plot needs her for.  Could be she’s a bad actor, could be bad writing, probably both.  Regardless, Tilda’s entire story arc is a wasted opportunity.

Repetition – All throughout the season entire scenes take place that give us the exact same information revealed in earlier episodes.  And the speeches – God help us, the speeches – that are repeated again and again. Luke musing on being a hero, Mariah preaching about family first, and Bushmaster relentless tirades on revenge.  The repetition just makes them look ridiculous rather than thoughtful.

Failure to heed the writing advice of “show don’t tell” – Both the inconsistent characterization and repetition are partly the result of the writers wanting to tell the audience things rather than show them.  For example, we’re constantly told that Luke is going through internal struggles, but are rarely shown this excepting a few good scenes such as his fight with Claire early in the season.

So those are my thoughts on a mostly good show that frustrates because it could be a great show.  The final episode of the show felt really out-of-place with the rest of the season, almost as if it were the opening of the next season rather than the conclusion to this season.  I don’t know where they’re going with Luke becoming a crime boss or if that’s a show I even want to watch, but I guess I’ll find out if and when season 3 is released.

 

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2018)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 2
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

I’m not much interested in superhero origin stories, and this whole season is basically a backdoor origin story for Jessica Jones. <HUGE SPOILER ALERT> In this season we learn that not only did Jessica’s mother, Alisa, survive the family’s car crash, but also has powers stronger than Jessica’s and has rage issues that turns her into a mass murderer.  The whole season is uneven and poorly plotted, although I think there are good episodes in the beginning and the end, with a muddle in the middle. While the first season was good at metaphorically good at exploring the ideas of the entitlement of men and the trauma of sexual abuse, this season does a poor job of trying to explore addiction and mental illness in a similar way.  The motivations of a lot of characters, especially Trish and Alisa, just don’t make a whole lot of sense. And Jeri Hogarth’s story seems to be it’s own tv series, one that is intent on showing that a lesbian woman can be a leering creep just like a man, especially in the bizarre episode where Jeri indulges in hookers and blow. Meanwhile, Jessica goes from hating to loving her new super in another incredulous subplot. It’s a good thing that there is a team of terrific team of actors to make all this bad writing bearable.

TV Review: The Defenders (2017)


Title: The Defenders
Release Dates: 2017
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 8
Summary/Review:

Following up on watching Jessica Jones and Luke Cage, I decided to watch this crossover miniseries because Marvel requires you to watch every single damn thing to have the background for the next thing.  It’s good to see Jessica and Luke working together, although a little disappointing that they seem to be supporting characters to the other two members of the team.  One of them is Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, who is a rich kid with a bad tattoo. He seems to be a dumb character with a dumb superpower and every time he’s on the screen the script gets dumber.  Much more interesting is Matt Murdock – a.k.a. Daredevil – a blind lawyer and devout Catholic with a ambiguous relationship to his superpowers.  I might look into watching his show.

The funny thing about this series is that it seems to pick up for Jessica Jones just after her struggle with Kilgrave, with her apartment still severely damaged and her not taking on private detective work.  Meanwhile, Luke has had time to move to Harlem, have everything that happened to him in season 1 of his own series, and spend a not insignificant time in prison.  Despite these inconsistencies and the shortness of this series, the show is brave enough to set up the plot for each of the four characters to naturally get involved in the mystery and only come together to fight their foe at the end of episode 3. Then they spend much of episode 4 getting to know one another over a meal at a Chinese restaurant.

The villain in this series is well cast, Sigourney Weaver playing Alexandra, the leader of the Hand, a group of people seeking immortality.  Weaver is always calm and measured with impeccable fashion sense and even her hair is never out of place.  This sets her apart from the more cartoonish villains of other Marvel stories, and when she finally gets angry, it really means something.  The other great part of this series is the way in which the supporting characters of the four individual series are brought in to work together.  Sometimes they commiserate over dealing with a super person in their life, sometimes their complementary skills work together to advance the plot.

This series is no masterpiece of television and it has a lot of flaws, but it is a fun gathering of local superheroes saving their city with their combined abilities in a series of action sequences, and sometimes thoughtful, quieter scenes.

TV Review: Jessica Jones (2015)


Title: Jessica Jones
Release Dates: 2015
Season: 1
Number of Episodes: 13
Summary/Review:

This Marvel tv series picks up with the titular character working as a private detective and dealing with PTSD through avoidance and alcohol abuse.  Jessica Jones has super strength but has abandoned being a hero due to her guilt and trauma, yet still tries to help people in her own way.  The arc of the series relates to the return of the major cause of her trauma, Kilgrave, a man who can control minds who held her captive for six months and caused her to commit murder.

I watched Luke Cage previously and the two shows have a lot in common with their main character coming to terms with their troubled past and making good use of the powers that they never asked for.  They’re also similar in that they do a great job of creating a mood, focusing on the interpersonal relationships, and taking time to let the story breathe.  At least in the first half of the season, but much like Luke Cage, the later episodes of Jessica Jones get too connected to their comic book origins and become just a little silly and overdone.  There’s also far more gore and brutal violence than I prefer to watch.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot to like about this show. Krysten Ritter puts in an excellent performance as Jessica Jones, seemingly dead on the outside, while boiling over on the inside.  Rachel Taylor plays her adoptive sister Trish Walker, a child star turned talk show host who displays her own form of strength and determination. Ritter and Taylor play well off of one another.  David Tennant is terrifyingly creepy as the evil Kilgrave, and I resent that I’ll never be able to watch him in Doctor Who the same way again. I knew Luke Cage appeared in this show, but didn’t realize he played such a significant role, and it’s interesting to see how Mike Colter plays a supporting character differently than when he’s on his own show.

There are some highs and lows in this season, some ridiculous coincidences, and some side plots that don’t seem to go anywhere, but it was good enough to be worth checking out the second season.