Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007) – Movie Review

fantastic four silver surfer

When I was very young, my Mom bought my comics when she did the weekly grocery shopping. One day, mixed in with “The Flash”, “Superman”, “World’s Finest”, and “Action Comics”, was this weird thing called “Fantastic Four” # 35. She somehow bought it by mistake, and it changed my life. The Kirby art, the bickering between the heroes, the romance between Reed and Sue…I had never read anything like it in DC. A few months later, I was making my own weekly trips to the local drugstore, buying Spider-man, FF, and Sgt. Fury off the spinner rack for 12 cents each. Slowly, Supes and Batman faded away for me, they just could not compete with the Marvel stories.

Fast forward: we live in a post-Image Comics age. Fanboys raised on steroid freaks and chicks in thongs. Yet, somehow, these two FF movies are NOT cynical, they are NOT dark, the heroes are NOT blood-thirsty maniacs, they are ordinary people. The Urban Dictionary defines “cheesy” as: ‘sentimental, maudlin, melodramatic, corny’. Well, guess what? The old Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four WAS ‘sentimental, maudlin, melodramatic, corny’. I liked FF1, I LOVE FF2. Why? Because the SPIRIT of the comics is right there, right up on screen.

I am going to be very specific when discussing “FF:RotSS”, so what follows will contain SPOILERS. All issue references concern the original run of the comic, which began in 1961.

The movie adapts the events of two famous story arcs from the period (1965-1968) considered to be the pinnacle of the collaboration between Stan Lee (writer) and Jack Kirby (artist). Those stories are in issues #48-50 (known as ‘the Galactus trilogy’), and #57-60 (Dr. Doom steals the Surfer’s power).

Tim Story and crew have made a much better movie this time out. The team members themselves are now very comfortable with their powers, and that translates on-screen into them having FUN. The FF always has featured bickering and corny jokes, and that is highlighted early on, without getting too over-the-top. The action really kicks in once we get to the wedding, and the Surfer appears.

All of the FF’s power effects are very, very well done, most notably Sue’s invisibility. The Surfer looks just outstanding, his visualization is believable in the way that Gollum from LOTR was: we forget quickly that this is a special effect, and engage with the character. His backstory is presented intact, and he slowly starts to reclaim his lost humanity. Sue is presented as the catalyst for his change of heart, in a way that Alicia was used in the comics.

A note about Chris Evans: he is the swaggering, exuberant heart of these ‘FF’ movies. Johnny has a definite character arc in this movie, and Evans has a good time showing us the more aware side of the Torch, along with the bravado and self-promotion that is the source of much humor. He never allows Johnny to be anything less than likable, and he gets some of the best scenes, including a very satisfying, Super-Skrull style trashing of Dr. Doom late in the movie.

Galactus…the original “Galactus trilogy” was a 3-issue meditation on the meaning of “Evil”, moral relativism, and the significance of Life itself. The events pivoted around a character called The Watcher, who is cosmically powerful, but sworn to non-interference. Stan Lee had spent 4 years slowly creating the “Marvel Universe” that the FF inhabited, and FF #48-50 was an expansion of various concepts he had already touched on previously. A feature film introducing THREE humanoid all-powerful cosmic beings (Watcher, Galactus, Silver Surfer), and prominently theorizing about the absolute value of life in the cosmos might be labeled “pretentious” by some, especially when the source material is a comic book. I would love to see that story myself, but I am critiquing “FF:RotSS” based on what it IS, not what it IS NOT. What we get is a streamlined story of global destruction that builds tension to a decent payoff. Galactus DOES appear at the very end, but his headpiece is engulfed in the film’s equivalent of “Kirby dots”, which were the artist’s trademark way of illustrating random, seething energy.

The movie quotes numerous scenes and images from the books of 1961-1967, too many to list completely here. Notable examples of this are:

> FF #60 p. 5: Doom uses the power cosmic to create a cyclone, just like in the film;

> FF #49 p. 10 pnl 1-2: visualization of a world destroyed by Galactus, similar to the movie’s opening shot;

> FF Annual #3 (1965) p. 23 pnl 4-6: Stan and Jack are barred from Reed/Sue’s wedding reception, and Stan is kept out in the movie;

> FF #59 p. 14 pnl 1: Doom deliberately causes freezing weather while flying overhead, in the movie the Surfer does the same thing unintentionally.

My one serious criticism of “FF:RotSS” is the total absence of Kirby’s signature crazy machinery. The FF comic book became stuffed full of elaborate gadgets and vehicles early on in the series, and the movie lags far behind. We get the Fantasti-car, but there is no Pogo Plane, Jet-cycle, etc.

I take issue with those who decry “FF:RotSS” for its PG rating. I read these very stories when I was 10 years old, and I just do not understand people complaining about a comic book being made into a family movie. The jokes are not adolescent gross-out humor like “Shrek”. The scene in the disco early on is typical, where the script has fun with the iconic image of Reed as a stuffed-shirt. This is done playfully, and is not a betrayal of the character. In fact, Reed declares a “Nerd Manifesto” later on that should warm the hearts of brainy, socially awkward teenage boys everywhere. The important thing, to me, is that THE MOVIE WORKS on its own terms, and remains terrifically entertaining from start to finish.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Fantastic Four (2005) – Movie Review

fantastic four 2005

Fantastic Four is one of the superhero films from the 2000’s, that I can recall, which wasn’t insufferably bleak or incredibly serious to a point where any shred of humor was seen as obtuse to the film’s narrative. Yes, Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is an indisputable breakthrough in superhero films, but it also made the seriousness of superhero films standard, something that would follow into the late 2000’s and early 2010’s as Marvel built up The Avengers. Fantastic Four reminds of the quirkiness superhero films were once predicated upon, and while it may get a bit too corny at times, and its focus can never really settle, it’s also a very commercial film that satisfies on some level of entertainment when it gives every card in its deck a fair time to shine.

We open by looking at a physicist named Dr. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), who is convinced evolution was triggered millions of years ago by stray elements of cosmic energy in space, some of which will pass near Earth very soon. His pal, astronaut Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis), works by his side on this potentially revolutionary discovery by helping him convince their old classmate Dr. Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), the CEO of Von Doom Industries, to allow both of them access to his private space station to further experiment with the effects of these cosmic energy particles. While Doom agrees, he winds up walking away with most of the profits that this experiment will bring, affirming Reed’s desperation to make his project work.

Still, he persists on and brings his close friends Susan Storm (Jessica Alba) and her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) along for the ride. However, when a trip to outer space goes awry, exposure with the cosmic energy results in the four receiving deformities and enhanced human abilities that have never before been seen: Reed possesses the ability to stretch every limb of his body, Susan has the ability to disappear and reappear at will, Johnny can engulf himself in flames, and Ben turns into a hideous, orange rock monster.

Following the four’s mutations, writers Michael France and Mark Frost focus a great deal of their time on the agony that these mutations bring, particularly The Thing, who experiences his wife leaving him shortly after revealing his deformity. While this agony is a solid angle (one I’d argue is necessary in most superhero films), too much of the time is spent profiling The Thing and not enough on the remaining characters of the film. Reed and Ben, who are ultimately the film’s main focus, wind up monopolizing too much of the picture, and any time we see Johnny it’s when he’s right in the middle of making a smug comment or being his typical, flirtatious self.

The action in Fantastic Four has a colorful commercial look to it, brilliantly bold and very vibrant in a way that makes many of the scenes pop with life. It manages to achieve a comic book aesthetic without resorting to picture-in-picture editing. One particularly involving scene takes place on a suspension bridge, where The Thing is seen pummeling everything in his sight and the remaining three members of the team must resort to either relaxing him or protecting drivers and innocent bystanders.

The goofiness in Fantastic Four, however, in an age of dark superhero films that come with slick aesthetics and brooding characters, is a delightful change of pace. Yes, there is a point when one wishes director Tim Story, France, and Frost would command a tighter grip on the seriousness of the writing, but the pulpy fun of Fantastic Four, in addition to the effects and the neatly choreographed action, keep it a moving, satisfying spectacle that is more than just colors flying around on screen, trying to find their place.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – Movie Review

avengers infinity warAnd so begins the end of an era. Everything that has happened so far in Marvel’s shared universe that began in 2008, everything has led to this moment. Avengers: Infinity War is where this decade’s worth of narrative & world-building is supposed to pay off. And that makes this film more than just another instalment in the franchise. It’s an epic moment, no less than a cinematic event.

The 19th instalment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and first of the two planned Avengers films that will conclude their Phase 3 plan, Avengers: Infinity War follows the all-powerful Thanos as he travels across the universe looking for infinity stones that would grant him the strength to impose his will on all of reality and finally faces the Avengers in a battle that would decide the fate of all existing lives.

Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo, Infinity War begins where Thor: Ragnarok signed off and what unfolds in the opening scene sets the tone for the rest of the story. It’s no doubt an ambitious undertaking by the Russo brothers but Captain America: Civil War proved that it’s them who were best suited for tackling this massive assignment than anyone else. And for the most part if not all, they do a pretty neat job at it.

Having been teased only in small doses until now, Infinity War puts Thanos front & centre as if it’s his movie. There is more at stake here than previous entries and in Thanos we have a supervillain who lives up to the expectations. His motivation for the sick fantasy that he wants to turn into reality isn’t as strongly appealing but it’s still serviceable. However, the film actually lacks that smooth, perfect balance the first Avengers film exhibited in all aspects.

The VFX team deserves the maximum credit, for everything from the set pieces to numerous locations to changing backdrops & settings to characters’ appearances & outfits is an end result of their work. There are plenty of moments that will make the audience cheer at the spectacle they are witnessing but it could also be exhausting, for CGI-laden action segments don’t carry that lasting effect and may become tiring after a while, which is exactly what happens here.

Cinematography is splendid, utilising IMAX cameras to capture the images in sharp detail & crisp clarity, but it also fails to make the most of the available technology by operating them in conventional fashion. Editing is brilliantly carried out, making sure the action keeps surfacing regularly to keep the interest alive but there were several scenes that it could’ve trimmed from its already demanding 149 mins runtime. And Alan Silvestri contributes with a rousing score that effectively uplifts the film’s larger-than-life aura.

Coming to the performances, barring a few exceptions, the entire ensemble of the MCU return to reprise their respective roles of the Avengers, the Guardians & their allies but it’s Josh Brolin as Thanos who impresses the most. The years of careful threading that underwent into hyping him as the biggest & baddest overlord of villainy & darkness ultimately works out in the film’s favour, as Thanos makes up for one formidable supervillain who’s far more intimidating than past Marvel antagonists and Brolin’s conquering voice makes him stand out even more.

As for the rest of the cast, Robert Downey Jr. returns as Tony Stark (Iron Man) with all his charisma & magnetic charm in tact and delivers a confidently assured input. Chris Hemsworth is even better as Thor and is bestowed with the most interesting arc of all Avengers. Chris Evans as Steve Rogers (Captain America) is no slouch either and carves his own moments to shine. Tom Holland is effortlessly captivating as Peter Parker (Spider-Man) and steals almost every scene he appears in. Others do well with what they are given but every single one of them is overshadowed by Thanos’ imposing presence.

On an overall scale, Avengers: Infinity War is an enjoyable, entertaining & satisfying extravaganza that somehow manages to live up to its enormous hype. There are plenty of unexpected surprises & unforeseen tragedies in store, plus the ending is going to hit the fans hard, but all of it would’ve left a more powerful & unforgettable impact if we didn’t already know that much of it will be undone in the next Avengers film. All in all, Avengers: Infinity War nearly pays off 10 years’ worth of investment with an exhilarating action-adventure spectacle and signs off by setting up a perfect stage for the grand finale.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) – Movie Review

avengers age of ultron

The original line-up of the Avengers are back for another go: Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, Hawkeye and Black Widow and a whole bunch of new heroes in Joss Whedon’s final turn in the director’s chair for Marvel’s ensemble franchise.

What’s the story about? Well it’s pretty simple, in the wake of Loki’s attempted invasion of New York City, Tony Stark attempts to create an artificial intelligence whose sole task is to protect Earth against future threats. Of course, this backfires and the Avengers end up creating their deadly enemy, Ultron. The rumors are true: one Avenger will die and it might not be who you expect.

Is it worth watching? Well, first the good stuff: the battle between an enraged Hulk and Iron Man in an unnamed African city is the highlight of the movie and it happens around the midpoint. Supporting characters in the first film like Hawkeye, Black Widow and the Hulk finally get center stage though at the expense of old stalwarts like Thor (who becomes an inadvertent comic relief throughout most of the movie) and Captain America (who turns into a one-dimensional boy scout). Iron Man is the Jimmy Neutron of the team- a tortured genius who tries to create a solution to a problem that has yet to exist and ends up creating a Frankenstein monster of sorts- it’s not that Tony Stark is the villain but this does tie in nicely with the upcoming Captain America: Civil War movie.

This brings into focus the central weakness of the movie: namely too many characters and not enough screen time for each one to be fleshed out. The movie not only serves as an origin story for Ultron as well as new Avengers Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver and the Vision but it ends up making the story a paper thin pastiche of short character building vignettes around huge swirling chaotic battle scenes- many of them too enamored with fast editing to the point that they are almost too quick to follow with the mind’s eye. Additional cameos by the Falcon, War Machine and Nick Fury only adds to its ad-hoc nature and myriad narrative.

In the end, Avengers Age of Ultron is ultimately satisfying but if you look closer, it seems to be nothing more than a placeholder for future plot lines in the upcoming Marvel Universe movie franchises.

 

7 out of 10 stars

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The Avengers (2012) – Movie Review

avengers

A colossal wave of fevered anticipation preceded the arrival of ‘Marvel’s The Avengers’, the culmination of five incredibly successful standalone films. Not only has helmer Joss Whedon weathered the immense scrutiny, he has amazingly managed to surpass the loftiest expectations with a movie that towers over the rest that have come before it, combining jaw-dropping action, tongue-in-cheek humour and poignant drama into a dazzling piece of summer blockbuster entertainment.

Proving that the whole can be so much more than the sum of its parts, Wheedon has distilled the best elements of each of the preceding movies into this assembly of Marvel superheroes- Iron Man is wiry and snarky as ever; Thor is just as Godly in his might but human in his compassion; and Captain America is still appealingly old-school. The Hulk, or Bruce Banner in his human form, is quite something else altogether though (being the only character to have a change of actor from the previous films) and all the better for it.

It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the one movie which ‘Avengers’ is most intimately associated with is ‘Thor’, given that both share the same villain- Thor’s adopted brother and fellow Asgardian Loki (Tom Hiddleston)- and that Wheedon did shoot the post-credits scene with Loki and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Opening with a recurring character from that movie, Dr Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) is now assisting with experiments on the Tessaract which has quite unexpectedly displayed a life of its own.

Turns out that the fallen Loki has been drafted by an alien race to lead its invasion of Earth, using the same Tessaract as a portal to cross over from their universe to ours- and his arrival not only leads to the decimation of the S.H.I.E.L.D. base, but also the takeover of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Selvig to do his bidding. With the fate of the world in the balance, Fury activates his ‘Avengers’ initiative to gather this group of heroes, including two S.H.I.E.L.D. operatives – the Black Widow and Hawkeye.

From the outset it’s clear that there is relative poetry in Wheedon’s storytelling as he expertly weaves together the recruiting exercise by Fury and his trusted agent Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg). The best he saves for last, so even though Thor only first appears half an hour into the movie, his is a spectacular entrance befitting a God, crossing paths with Iron Man for a thunderous one-on-one clash in the middle of the woods.

True to the spirit of the books, the assembly of these superheroes begins on a fractious note- chiefly due to Stark’s distrust of Fury and disdain for the star-and-stripes outfitted Captain America. Instead, Stark teams up with the only person he deigns as his intellectual equal- Bruce Banner- to locate the Tessaract and uncover what dirty secrets Fury has been keeping from the rest of them. The answer to the latter isn’t all too unexpected, but kudos to Wheedon for tying this little detail nicely with the events in ‘Thor’.

It will take a colossal event to bring these disparate heroes together, resulting in the first of two action set pieces in the movie that will undoubtedly qualify amongst some of the most spectacularly thrilling stuff you’ll ever see on the big screen. And just when you think it couldn’t get any better, Wheedon tops it with an even grander and absolutely breathtaking climax set in the heart of New York City.

The reason why the finale works so brilliantly is that Wheedon loves and respects each and every superhero character just as much. Wheedon gets the action pitch-perfect through reinforcing the individual powers of each one of the superheroes before uniting their strengths to form an even mightier coalition. It is nothing less than pure ecstasy when they join forces as a team, and you’ll find it difficult to resist getting up from your seat and cheering for them at various points throughout the remarkable finish.

This review however won’t be complete without a special shout-out for the Hulk, many fans of whom have been disappointed by both the Lee Ang and the later Louis Leterrier iteration of it. Here, Wheedon has finally gotten it right, blending both the character’s brains and brawn to crowd pleasing effect- even more so through some clever plotting that ensures Banner’s eventual transformation from man to beast is as rewarding as it should be.

Calling it the perfect summer blockbuster is probably not enough to do justice to just how brilliant it is, and it certainly ranks as one of the most- if not the most- entertaining and exhilarating experiences you’ll have at the movies.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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Captain America: Civil War (2016) – Movie Review

captain america civil war

Combining political intrigue with superhero action is a daring, risky move…but “Captain America: Civil War” couldn’t be in better hands. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo prove once again to be the best directors in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, turning Stephen McFeely and Christopher Marcus’s brilliant screenplay into a work of art. No other Marvel movie has yet delivered such a fluid combination of intelligence, symbolism, and heartbreaking opposition as the Russo brothers’ latest entry into the already amazing Captain America series.

Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America) reminds audiences why his hero has always been the most likable as he embodies the valiantly flawless titular hero in a way only he can. Robert Downey Jr. introduces a new side of his egocentric Tony Stark/Iron Man, which will either make you love him all the more or repel you, depending on who’s side you take. And that’s one of the many beauties of “Civil War”: the viewer has to determine which hero’s side he’s on, as both have their own opinion of the “Sokovia Accords”, a document that will put the United Nations in charge of all super-powered individuals.

As both heroes recruit others of their kind to fight for (or against) the “Sokovia Accords”, a scheming puppeteer manipulates them, practically unseen, both Captain America and Iron Man mistakenly believing the other to be the true enemy. And Daniel Bruhl as Helmut Zemo, the man most determined to accomplish his agenda, delivers the most moving, emotional performance in the whole movie. Helmut Zemo is at once terrifying and enigmatic, in a way no other Marvel villain has been before, and he accomplishes this without any superpowers, bringing to mind Heath Ledger’s Joker. As he stares blankly into space listening to a voice recording on his phone, his motionless face says more than any other actor in the whole film. And that’s saying a lot, because most of what fuels “Civil War” is dynamic, passionate acting from almost all of the actors.

During its worst moments, the film is thought-provoking, conflicting, and emotionally immersive, and when an action scene obligatorily comes along, it doesn’t forget the inherent tragedy of the circumstances. The many lighthearted, chuckle-inducing moments (many courtesy of Ant-Man) don’t distract from the plot, but remind us that the dueling heroes are still friends, despite their differences. The third installment of the Captain America series–and hopefully not the last–is sure to excite superhero fans, and also entice those harder to please.

Synopsis: “Civil War” is an instant classic that transcends typical superhero movie expectations with powerful acting, an artistic vision, and a story that will spark discussions and arguments many years from now.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Movie Review

captain america winter soldier

Directed by the sure hands of Anthony and Joe Russo (TV’s Community) from an excellent screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is easily the best of the stand alone Marvel films and a thrilling action film full of big surprises and twists with far reaching consequences. A superior sequel like X Men 2 and The Dark Knight, it raises the stakes of good story telling and intricate adaptations of its comic book origins in the guise of a political thriller.

Steve Rogers AKA Captain America (Chris Evans) continues his adjustment to 21st century life after his thaw from the deep freeze (in Captain America: The First Avenger) and befriends a fellow veteran, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). On a typical mission for S.H.I.E.L.D., Cap and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a team of agents to rescue a pirated ship which turns up an interesting bit of information. Meanwhile, as S.H.I.E.L.D. readies the major launch of a defense system in Washington, D.C., there are growing concerns expressed by boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) to his superior, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford). As suspicions multiply, all hell breaks loose when there is an assassination attempt on one of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s own. The conspiracy leads Captain America to a confrontation with a mysterious, formidable figure, The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), whose strength and skills are extraordinary. With only a small circle of comrades, everything Cap has come to value comes crashing down. Loyalties are tested and just who will survive a major shift in the world order is just the beginning of an insidious plot.

For fans of Cap, these are grand times as the filmmakers have chosen a major story arc (The Winter Soldier) from his comic books and incorporated Silver Age characters like The Falcon (Mackie) and Batroc (GSP). Recently, super hero films have chosen to bend the rules and take chances with tradition. This film goes much further than any previous Marvel adaptation. It features a good mystery, topical subject matter on individual privacy, and significant plot twists so much so that it is essential for the viewer to watch them unfold without any spoilers. The smart script contains witty lines amid a pervasive feeling of mistrust and paranoia. When Cap responds to Fury’s state of the art weaponry to combat threats and says, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear,” it sums up the theme of the story. Think of this as homage to 1970s conspiracy classics like Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and Marathon Man. The film also employs moments that references Mission Impossible, The X Files, RoboCop, and 24.

Acting is uniformly strong as some old, familiar faces return, and a few new ones get introduced. By now Evans has become the embodiment of the iconic hero, retaining his sense of justice, duty, and morals, virtues which are downright refreshing in a post 9/11 world. Rogers is a Rip Van Winkle out of his time and still learning to assimilate to changes in the world, and cultural references, with amusing results. Evans’ chemistry with Johansson is believable yet ironic since their two characters have vastly different backgrounds. In a co-starring role, Johansson’s Black Widow is resourceful, smart, and deadly as a S.H.I.E.L.D. operative whose history is only beginning to be explored. Jackson’s Fury has an expanded role and reveals more facets of his mysterious background. Robert Redford (All the President’s Men) has a significant, atypical role as a high level government official, and he is outstanding. His presence alone adds legitimacy and authority to the film. Mackie (The Hurt Locker) is an ideal buddy in arms to Evans. Emily VanCamp makes a good first impression as a young agent, and Cobie Smulders (returning as Agent Maria Hill) provides solid backup.

The many impressive action sequences are noteworthy for their ferocity and meticulous detail, but the standouts are a mad, opening car chase through the streets of D.C., and a remarkable fight in a glass elevator that surpasses the gem in Die Hard: With a Vengeance. There are moments of intense hand to hand combat that recall the best moments of the Bourne films on steroids. You’ve also got to love that shield; the film wisely displays all the creative ways Cap’s shield is employed in combat. The violence here is realistically depicted and not cartoonish which pushes its PG-13 rating. Extensive use of hand-held cameras and more live action special effects than CGI lend a stronger sense of realism. D.C. locations make a splendid backdrop for much of the film.

Taking super hero filmmaking to new heights, Captain America: The Winter Soldier successfully interconnects what we know from previous films and effectively challenges you to re-evaluate everything in the Marvel Universe. It certainly helps to have seen the previous films, but there is sufficient background and context that a casual viewer would still enjoy it. (Fans of TV’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. will have a field day as the events tie in directly with the show.) Though the film ends with open ended story threads that beg for another installment, consider this as The Empire Strikes Back of Captain America. That’s not such a bad place to be.

 

10 out of 10 stars

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