Movie Review: The Dark Knight (2008)


Title: The Dark Knight 
Release Date: July 14, 2008
Director: Christopher Nolan
Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures | Legendary Pictures | DC Comics | Syncopy
Summary/Review:

After hearing accolades for this film for so many years, I found myself severely disappointed after watching it for the first time.  Is 13 years enough time for this movie to feel so dated? Both Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) are supposed to be good guys but they appear to be stereotypical evil yuppies from a late 80s/early 90s movie. And when Dent takes his heel turn it’s because his fiance Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal) gets fridged.  I know that was  already a tired and dated trope by 2008 and seems a waste of Gyllenhaal’s talents.  Heath Ledger is praised for his performance as The Joker, and rightly so, but he’s also the only person in this movie who actually gets to be a character not just an archetype.  For me, the real hero of this movie is the prisoner who throws a detonator off of a ferry.

And to borrow a phrase from this movie’s villain, “Why so serious?”  In the effort to make this movie feel “dark, gritty, and realistic” it forgets to have any sense of humanity and humor.  Even The Joker doesn’t tell any jokes. The only thing that made me laugh was Bale’s ridiculously gravelly Batman voice. Granted, the movie doesn’t need to be campy like the 1960s tv series Batman.  But the best superhero movies like Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok show that a superhero movie can have a lot of humor and heart while still dealing with serious and traumatic issues.  The Dark Knight is obviously a well-made action film (with a lot of admirable practical effects in the age of CGI), but if it ever was “the best superhero movie of all time” it has since been usurped multiple times.

Rating: **

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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Movie Review: Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)


Title: Spider-Man: Far From Home
Release Date: July 2, 2019
Director: John Watts
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The 23rd entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the follow-up to Spider-Man: Homecoming, also serves as a coda to Avengers: Endgame. The movie shows the world dealing with the aftermath of The Blip (the term being used to describe people disappearing for 5 years and then returning) and grieving over the loss of multiple Avengers, most prominently Iron Man.  Peter Parker and many of his friends had to start over the year of school that was interupted by The Blip and share a class with kids who’ve aged 5 years in the interim.

Peter wants to escape the constant questions of whether he will step into Iron Man’s role and simply enjoy his school’s summer vacation to Europe and express his feelings for MJ (Zendaya).  Unfortunately for him, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) tracks him down to fight a series of invaders known as the Elementals.  He joins Quentin Beck/ Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to fight the Elementals and is carried on a whirlwind journey across Europe from Venice to Prague to Berlin to the Netherlands to London.  The movie blends genres among comedy, romance, road trip, and superhero action film.  The supporting cast is strong and adds to the strengths of the film, particularly Jacob Batalon as Peter’s best friend Ned, Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Martin Starr as Roger Harrington, a teacher/chaperone who’s doing his best trying to manage the nuttiness of the school trip.

It was pretty clear that Mysterio would turn out to be a villain, although the twist about his actual background was unexpected. I also enjoyed that Peter and Quentin got to have some important heart-to-hearts about being superheroes and hope that Peter can find someone to talk to about such things who won’t double cross him. Like many a sophomore effort, there’s a slump from Homecoming to Far From Home, mostly due to the need to raise the stakes that ends up with more superhero fightin’ and less nuance and charm.  But generally this is an entertaining movie and a good addition to the MCU oeuvre.

Rating: ***1/2

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Movie Review: The Incredibles 2 (2018)


Title: The Incredibles 2
Release Date: June 15, 2018
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

14 years after the original movie, The Incredibles return with a sequel, which is an incredible display of restraint in these sequel-happy times.  Unfortunately that doesn’t seem to be long enough to come up with some original ideas, as the second film shares several plotlines with the original.  This time it’s Elastigirl who is recruited to do superhero work by mysterious rich people, while Mr. Incredible stays home with the kids.  And the kids, having demonstrated their value as supers in the first movie, once again have to demonstrate their value to their parents.  Also, this movie uses trope of the father being incompetent at caring for children on his own, which is irritating, although it could’ve been worse.

What this movie does have is Jack-Jack, a very cute baby who is demonstrating that he has superpowers for the first time.  And he has lots of different superpowers but as a toddler cannot really control them.  Jack-Jack is the comic lifeline of this movie, and I particularly enjoy when he wrestles with a raccoon.

When I reviewed The Incredibles last year, I noted how it preceded the massive explosion of superhero movies of recent years, and how it influenced how the MCU, DCU, et al are tying in interpersonal relationships with action-adventure.  Now the influence is going the other way as the action sequences in Incredibles 2 are inspired by what you might see in an Avengers movie.

Final thoughts: a fun and entertaining sequel, but Pixar and Brad Bird can do better than this.

Rating: ***

 

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

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Movie Review: Deadpool (2016)


TitleDeadpool
Release Date: February 12, 2016
Director: Tim Miller
Production Company: Marvel Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Deadpool is the eighth movie in the X-Men series and the first one (and possibly the last one) I’ve watched.  The titular characters, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, is a former special forces operative who becomes a mercenary.  His shtick is to constantly make crude jokes while carrying out his vengeance for hire.  He meets Vanessa, and they fall in love over their shared outsider status and crude sense of humor.  But when he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer he leaves Vanessa under the mistaken belief he’d be a burden to her.

Wilson is recruited to undergo treatment with a serum designed to activate mutant genes and also cure his cancer.  The secret lab is run by the sadistic Francis who tortures the test subjects to trigger the mutations, and plans to use the mutated humans as a slave army.  Wilson’s mutations give him super healing but also disfigure his body. He escapes and becomes Deadpool to avenge himself against Francis and his cronies.

All of this back story is told in flashbacks after an opening scene with Deadpool attacking Francis’ motorcade on a freeway. The effects of a car crashing in the midst of a gun battle in slow motion makes for a stunning opening.  Deadpool’s wisecracks and breaking the fourth wall do a great job at sending up superhero story conventions and Marvel movies in particular.  The characters of the overly sincere Collosus and the moody Negasonic Teenage Warhead are particularly hilarious (I’d pay to see a Negasonic Teenage Warhead solo film).

But the crude wisecracks lose their effect after a while, much like Howard Stern or South Park, it’s just stops being funny.  And after the great opening, Deadpool becomes more of a run-of-the-mill action/adventure superhero story with a lot of unquestioned macho BS to boot.  I’m also not much of one for excessive gore and violence.  So, I’ll give this a nice effort, but not for me.

Rating: **

Movie Review: The Incredibles (2004)


Title: The Incredibles
Release Date: November 5, 2004
Director: Brad Bird
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Pixar Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

On the flight home from our honeymoon in Italy, my bride and were separated by Alitalia and seated at opposite ends of the economy cabin.  My loss was assuaged a bit by being able to stretch my legs under the curtain into first class, dining on wine and cheese, and watching The Incredibles on tv.   With a sequel released this summer, I thought it worthwhile to watch again. Probably relaxation and wine were my chief accomplishments of that flight because I didn’t remember the movie all that well.

Set in a stylized 1960s, The Incredibles recreates the golden era of superhero comics, but asks the question of what it would be like if superheroes married, raised a family, and tried to live a normal life.  The drama of the movie is inaugurated by Mr. Incredible’s mid-life crisis which draws him back into the superhero game behind Elastigirls’ back.  When he gets in above his head, she has to come bail him out and their children Violet and Dash get to use their powers to fight crime for the first time.  It’s a great movie that works on many levels, and in typical Pixar fashion has a lot of humor and a lot of heart.

For all the retro design of The Incredibles, I find it interesting how much it presaged the boom of superhero comic movies of the past decade and a half. In the interim between The Incredibles and The Incredibles II there has been 3 Spider-Man films (one finishing a trilogy and two from a reboot), 3 Fantastic Four films (including a reboot), Superman Returns, Christoper Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 9 X-Men films, 5 DC Extended Universe films, the entire 19 film run of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and others I’m forgetting.  The Incredibles‘ focus on interpersonal relationships within the family, a villain inadvertently created by the hero’s actions, and a society that seeks to reign in rather than celebrate people with powers are all facets that make it a forerunner of contemporary superhero movies.

Rating: ****