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.

 

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

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

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Book Review: The Life of Captain Marvel by Margaret Stohl, Carlos Pacheco


Author: Margaret Stohl
Title: The Life of Captain Marvel
Illustrator: Carlos Pacheco
Publication Info: Marvel,  February 19, 2019
Summary/Review:

After reading Kraven’s Last Hunt, I decided to check out another book in the Marvel Selects series. The material in this collection isn’t actually all that old, only dating to 2018.  It tells Captain Marvel’s origin story framed within a story of Carol Danvers taking a break from the Avengers to visit her family at their summer home in Maine.  (Did you know that Carol is from the Boston area, they didn’t say that in the movie?)  With flashbacks to her childhood and confrontations with her mother and brother, Carol learns secrets about her parents and the origins of her powers.  As origin stories go, it’s pretty well done.

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.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse


Title: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Release Date: December 14, 2018
Director:  Bob Persichetti | Peter Ramsey | Rodney Rothman
Production Company: Columbia Pictures | Sony Pictures Animation | Marvel Entertainment
Summary/Review:

There has been a glut of Spider-Man movies the past 17 years or so, but this one has the most spider-people of all!  This animated feature focuses on Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Lation teen from Brooklyn in a universe where Spider-Man comic books relate the adventures of the real life hero, Peter Parker (Chris Pine).  Miles, like Peter before him, is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains super-powers.  Peter offers to train Miles to use his powers, but dies attempting to shutdown the Super-Collider built by the villain, The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber).

The Super-Collider opens up other dimensions and pulls other people with spider powers into Miles’ universe.  All of these characters are from various Marvel comics series, but if you’re not a comics reader (like me) they have a nice running gag where each of the heroes quickly goes through their back story. They include Peter B. Parker, an older and out of shape version of Spider-Man who Miles refers to as “the janky old, broke, hobo Spider-Man,” and Gwen Stacy, who is the teenage Spider-Woman in her universe.  Three more spider-beings play supporting roles, Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), a Looney Toons style cartoon spider-pig; Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn), an anime-style character in a biomechanical spider suit; and Spider-Man Noir (Nicholas Cage), who is a 1930s gumshoe.

This movie has a lot going for it.  First of all, the animation is terrific, emulating the pages of comic books and multiple animation styles, with terrific colors, imagery, and flow.  Second, it is very funny, not taking the premise of the Spider-Verse too seriously and having fun with the conflicts and meta moments.  Finally, it is very sweet, working as a symbolic coming-of-age story for a teenager grappling with new responsibilities and changes in family relationships, as well as a fun adventure.

The ending indicates future movies in the Spider-Verse, and I for one would like to see the addition of the newspaper comics Peter Parker (who frequently yells at the television) and the pantomime Spider-Man from the 1970s children’s show The Electric Company.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame (2019)


TitleAvengers: Endgame
Release Date: April 26, 2019
Director: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

The twenty-second installment in Marvel Cinematic Universe is the culmination of several plotlines and story arcs established in the previous movies. Obviously the pay off is going to be better the more invested you are in the previous 21 movies.  Almost every review I’ve seen of this movie says it’s a finale, which is puzzling because more MCU movies are coming, but it does tie up ongoing storylines for the original 6 Avengers in satisfying ways. The movie also sets up storylines that I expect will be followed up on in future stand alone movies for the more recently introduced characters.

While Avengers: Endgame is over three hours in length, it never feels boring or padded, and it includes a lot of excellent character work.  I think of it almost as three movies in one.  The first movie focuses on the aftermath of Thanos snapping half of sentient life out of existence as each of the original Avengers deal with the trauma of their failure, grief over the people lost, and adjusting to the new normal (or not).  In the second movie, the Avengers try a daring plan to reverse the Snap, which plays out as a heist movie with a lot of action and humor, but also some great relationship moments.  The final movie is … well, hard to describe without using spoilery words, but it is epic!

11 years ago when the MCU began, I had no interest in watching superhero movies.  I didn’t even watch any of them until four years ago.  Now, I’ve managed to see all of them at least once, and I’m impressed how the MCU has improved in quality in leaps and bounds over time.  They’ve also created something unique and innovative in film storytelling that reaches it’s culmination in Endgame.  If you’re a doubter like me, I highly recommend giving (some) of the MCU films a chance and then checking out Endgame.

Rating: ****

 

HEAVY DUTY SPOILERS

Okay, so here are some various thoughts about Endgame for people who’ve already seen the movie or don’t care to be spoiled:

  • After watching Infinity War, I proposed the idea that if the 50% of beings in the universe are killed in The Snap, what if Thanos himself was arbitrarily dusted?  After seeing Endgame, I think this would have worked quite well as the Avengers end up killing a powerless Thanos early on in the movie.  Imagine the drama if we’d spent the past year wondering how the Avengers were going to reverse The Snap if we knew that Thanos and the stones had disappeared?
  • I liked how the early parts of Endgame focused on how people on Earth were dealing with the loss of half the population, and I think it would be interesting if the idea were explored further in a stand-alone MCU film set in the five-year gap (see below).  But some aspects puzzled me:
    • In San Francisco, we see abandoned cars and missing persons signs. In New York we see abandoned boats docked around the Statue of Liberty (presumably left by refugess fleeing to New York?) and learn that the Mets no longer exist.  In both cities, the streets are bereft of people.  50% of humanity is a lot to lose, but New York alone would still have over 4 million people! Surely in five years, someone would’ve cleaned up this mess.  And there would be plenty of people left to restock the Mets roster and fill the stands at Citi Field (MLB survived the Great Influenza and WWII, after all).
    • In Infity War, we see cars and a helicopter crashing and presumably people die from these crashes who did not turn to dust.  Do the inifinity stones magically account for these collateral deaths in the 50% or are they an addition to the 50%?  Do the people who died indirectly as a result of The Snap get restored.
  • Thor, in his grief and trauma, drinks too much and gains a lot of weight.  It’s played for jokes and he looks like The Dude from The Big Lebowski, but I appreciate that Thor doesn’t magically lose weight and become fit and cut again when he starts fighting.  Fat guys can be heroes too.
  • One of the strengths of the “Time Heist” portion of the film is that there are great character relationship moments.  Thanks to time travel, Thor gets to talk with his mother about his gried, and Tony Stark gets to connect with his father about parenthood.
  • As much as it was totally predictable conclusion, the moment when Sam Wilson leads in all the restored-from-dust Avengers was completely awesome.  I also like how they pass the gauntlet around as a way of focusing on individual characters in the midst of a confusing battle.  And the scene where all the women heroes team up, while a bit pandering, was pretty awesome too.

The future of the MCU

Endgame is being touted as the finale of a 22 film series, but clearly it is also setting up new stories to be told in future films.

  • It’s clearly the end of the line for Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, and while it’s always possible to bring them back in some way, I think it would ruin a satisfying ending to their story arc.
  • Natasha Romanoff dies in the movie, which is not so satisfying, but the MCU can be redeemed if they follow up on producicing the promised Black Widow solo movie.  With the character dead that will be a challenge, though. The obvious solution is a prequel showing Natasha’s origin story although I don’t think that would be too interesting.  Another option would be a story set in the five year gap of Endgame which I think would offer more interesting character possibilities as well as a chance to further explore the world after half the population vanished.  The downside is that whatever problem Natasha would have to face in this story would seem small-scale compared to The Snap.
  • Clint Barton is likely done and happy to head into retirement with his family. I suppose a longer film about his “Ronin” period could be made but that would be pretty grim.
  • Bruce Banner, now Professor Hulk, never got a trilogy but had his story arc spread out over various other films which worked surprisingly well.  I don’t know if there are any more stories about Hulk to tell, but I wouldn’t complain if we saw him again.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy, vol 3. is being set up to be a search for the past version of Gamora who traveled to the future with Thanos.  And, it looks like Thor is along for the ride!  Except, in real life, Chris Hemsworth says that he’s finished with Thor.  I’d love to see Thor and the AsGuardians have a movie together (heck, I’d watch a Thor/Rocket/Groot buddy road film) so I hope he’s not being fully honest.
  • Steve Rogers hands over his shield to Sam Wilson to be the next Captain America and it will be great to see a movie where Sam takes on the role.  One of the oddities of Endgame is that old Steve doesn’t talk with Bucky on screen, which seems out of line with the importance of Bucky to Steve in all the Captain America movies. I do think it would work if Bucky is a supporting character to Sam’s Captain, and perhaps more of what Steve & Bucky talked about off screen is revealed.
  • I really like Tessa Thompson as Valykrie and now that she’s ruler of Asgard, I want to see that played out in a Valykrie movie.
  • And of course Ant-Man, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel will complete their trilogies.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013)


Title: Iron Man 3
Release Date: May 3, 2013
Director: Shane Black
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

I could say that this is the best Iron Man film, but that would be damning it with faint praise. I find it puzzling that Robert Downey, Jr. and his take on Tony Stark are so good in collaboration with the other Avengers, but his solo movies are just self-indulgent excess.  And there is a lot of excess in this mess of a movie, just tons of stuff thrown at the screen to see what works.  Which makes it so weird that it’s actually somewhat entertaining.

Following up on the Battle of New York in The Avengers, Stark is dealing with PTSD.  This is the main plot of the first act of the movie, but then seems to be discarded along the way when it comes time to start blowing stuff up.  The second act gives Stark a kid named Haley (Ty Sympkins) for a sidekick, with some interesting surrogate father/son dynamics.  This is also discarded before the third act.  For much of the movie Stark is forced to work without an Iron Man suit, which is also an interesting approach as we get to see Downey, Jr. working things out with cleverness rather than technology.  But the absence of the Iron Man suit is atoned for in the explosive finale where he and Rhodey (Don Cheadle) win with a metric shitton of Iron Man suits.

The villain in this movie is Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), a mad scientist who sought Stark’s help 14 years earlier, but Stark rejected him, and so he becomes a supervillain to get revenge.  This is totally the premise of The Incredibles and I’m not the first one to observe this.  Killian and his henchpeople are pretty absurd and largely forgettable.  There is a character played by Ben Kinglsey who is at the center of one of the movie’s big twists, and Kingsley plays him so weird that it’s actually delightful.  Maybe they should’ve cast Kingsley as the Big Bad instead.

And so I’ve done it!  I’ve watched all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, and by the time this post goes live, I will have seen Avengers: Endgame as well (and I’ll post that review tomorrow).

Rating: **

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: **