Captain Marvel (2019) – Movie Review

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There’s been a lot of excitement surrounding the release of this movie with one side wanting it to do well to support their camp, and the other side wanting it to fail to support theirs.

I don’t care about that either way (but I will take this opportunity to be a little provocative and use an OG Captain Marvel image on this post instead of the current movie poster). I just want to be entertained by a good superhero movie which continues the story that Marvel has been telling for the last 10 years. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of the better ones. I found it to be very mediocre and forgettable. And that’s really as charitable as I can be with this movie.

Brie Larson certainly looks the part, but based upon her performance it seems like she was miscast in the role. Her time on screen is spent vacillating between looking indifferent and an unidentifiable expression, which many have attributed to smugness, for most of the movie. Personally I found it to be a bit off-putting and not only was the Carol Danvers character unlikable as a result, it also kept pushing me out of the movie by making it hard to suspend my disbelief.

Unfortunately, it goes downhill from here.

The underlying subtext of the movie is female empowerment, which is fine. Comic books are allegories, and always have been, at least when it comes to Marvel Comics. It’s one of the (many) things I love about comics, but there’s a fine line when creating these kinds of stories. They still have to be relatable and engaging, and ultimately entertaining, which is something that the comic book industry does quite well (for the most part). If you lean a little too far towards the underlying subtext then it looks a little ham-fisted and people perceive it as propaganda. And that’s what happens here; it’s so busy trying to be a feminist film that it forgets to be a superhero movie.

It’s clear that Marvel (and ultimately Disney) is trying to capitalise on the current zeitgeist, which is a bit of a departure for them. Past efforts have been focused more on telling entertaining stories which remained reasonably faithful to the source material. This movie doesn’t do that and as such has a different look and feel than its predecessors. So much so that it doesn’t really feel like a Marvel movie at all.

An unfortunate side effect of this are the changes made to existing characters, both from the source material and the MCU itself. In this movie Nick Fury doesn’t resemble the character we’ve seen over the course of his appearances in 11 of the MCU movies. His character is not bad within the context of the narrative they’re trying to support, but his actions are not congruent with what we’ve seen and know about that character. On the back of that, having him lose his eye to a cat is a disservice to the character and shows that the filmmakers don’t really have any respect for the source material or, I would argue, the fans.

It’s the casual fan base which underwrites the financial viability of these movies, not the fringe elements. When you dogmatically service these elements specifically, on one side or the other, you risk marginalizing the culture we love by forcing out this casual fan base.

Personally, I enjoyed Alita: Battle Angel much more as a female empowerment movie. These two films essentially have the same plot, but the execution of the story, of the allegory, is done more competently in Alita with characters that are more fully formed, coupled with superior performances from the actors. It’s a superior movie in every way and I recommend seeing this one instead and giving Captain Marvel a miss.

 

1 out of 5 stars

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Thor (2011) – Movie Review

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Thor is exactly what a comic-book movie ought to be – it’s packed with action and great effects, it’s true to its source material, it gives us characters we actually care about, and it’s a tense melodrama with connections to Shakespeare.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is an Asgardian prince, son of King Odin (check your Norse mythology). Hot-headed, impetuous, prone to violence, and quite full of himself, he is nonetheless next in line for the throne. Just before his coronation is complete, however, intruders from Jotunheimm infiltrate Asgard; although they’re quickly dispatched, Thor demands revenge, and against his father’s explicit orders, he and his friends (including his brother, Loki) travel to Jotunheim to seek answers – and kick butt, if necessary and possible. Odin finds out and saves them, but he strips Thor of his powers – including his great hammer, Mjolnir, and banishes him to Earth to teach him a lesson in humility.

This banishment serves to open the door for treachery in Asgard, allowing the Frost Giants of Jotunheim to wage war against the Asgardians. Meanwhile, some of that trouble is spilled out onto the Earth, where Thor has fallen under the romantic spell of Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). Suffice to say that bad things come to a small town in New Mexico, with only a now-mortal Thor able to help them.

But this movie is about more than just bad guys plotting to take over the universe; it’s about father-son relationships and the rivalry between a favored son and “the other brother.” There’s a lot of Henry V and King Lear present, and this is due in no small part to the movie’s director, the great Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is not the first person you’d think of to direct a movie based on a comic book, but he skillfully manages to not only keep the expected characterizations and plot fresh but also to instill a sense of classicism and wonderment.

The CGI is pretty well utilized and what’s more important it doesn’t distract from the plot. In some movies, effects serve as noise to prevent the audience from discovering that the story doesn’t make much sense. Branagh isn’t subtle in his use of technology, but this isn’t a movie that really should be subtle. Thor himself certainly isn’t.

Hemsworth is perfectly cast in the title role. Sturdy and ripped, he fits Thor’s physical description, but also infuses the character with depth and likability. Portman, an Oscar winner, fills a role similar to Liv Tyler’s and Jennifer Connelly’s in the two Hulk films. Her character reminded me quite a bit of Jodie Foster’s character in Contact – a determined, resolved, super-smart researcher determined to uncover the truth behind the mystery being presented.

Anthony Hopkins plays Odin as you’d expect Anthony Hopkins to play a king: regally, with a weary toughness. Idris Elba, Kat Denning, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Ray Stevenson, and a couple of uncredited supporting characters are also well cast.

Thor is every bit as entertaining as I thought it’d be. It’s classy without being out of reach for the rest of us; it’s not a Royal Theater production, but neither is it a simple slam-bang cacophony of senseless violence.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Iron Man 2 (2010) – Movie Review

The sequel to Marvel studio’s surprise hit of 2008 is here, bigger than ever. But is it better? After the surprise success of Iron Man, expectations for the sequel, from both movie viewers and long time comic books fans, were no doubt high.

Picking off where the first film ended, billionaire genius Tony Stark has just revealed to the world his identity as the armor clad superhero, Iron Man. Now he reaps the whirlwind consequences of his actions as both the military and unscrupulous competitor Justin Hammer vie to obtain the secrets of Stark’s Iron Man technology for their own gain. Too add to the flames, Stark soon discovers that the very technology that is keeping his heart alive is also poisoning him. As he tries to salvage a life that is slowly falling to pieces and his growing feelings for his long time assistant Pepper Potts(Gwyneth Paltrow), Starks has to contend to with a foreign weapons genius named Ivan Vanko who seems to bear a deep seated grudge against the ailing billionaire; a grudge that stemmed from the legacy of Tony’s father, Howard Stark.

Whatever was good in the first movie is carried on in true sequel fashion. The acting and chemistry among the cast is definitely the highlight of the whole film. Robert Downey Jr IS Tony Stark, though less of a playboy following his “change of heart”(figuratively and literally) in the first movie, but still the same wisecracking, smirky eccentric. Everyone is just so natural in their roles including the villains, especially The character of Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Hammer had all the makings of a silly one dimensional villainous caricature, but manages to be a well rounded scumbag of a corporate competitor, providing some excellent comic relief while still presenting a credible threat to the hero.

That being said, the script is just littered with witty banter, intelligent jokes and a good number of “Easter eggs” for the long time comic book fans. Writer Justin Theroux had a good number of interesting themes going for this movie, most notable of which is the theme of “legacy”, of what people leave behind when they are gone; their impressions on their successors and how the effects of their past actions would echo down the years long after one has passed. Stark himself, faced with his inevitable demise, does not want to leave a legacy of death as a weapons designer. Aside from that, we see how the legacies of both Stark’s and Ivan Vanko’s fathers have affected their present lives.

Now, Vanko’s (played by Sin City’s Mickey Rourke) is a truly tragic tale. It is easy to pass him off as a “darth maul” type character with no other purpose than to provide the hero with a powerful opponent for the mandatory climax. But to the more attentive viewers, one can see how Vanko is basically the dark opposite reflection of Tony Stark. Both are geniuses, both are where they are because of their respective fathers yet different circumstances in life brought them down entirely different paths. The parallels between his origin story of creating the “whiplash” powered armor from scrap, getting captured(in a similarly explosive manner) in order to develop weapons for one man to bring down his competitor all the way to his cunning escape plan and his mistaken impression about his dearly departed father are all uncannily similar to Tony Stark’s experiences in the first movie that led up to his debut as the hero Iron Man and his mistaken impression about his own father.

The one thing viewers might not appreciate is that this sequel seems to lack that sense of “fun” that the first film had, taking on a more serious tone at times to dish out the more complex themes and even a romantic sub-plot. It really is too bad that the more complex themes are there but not really expanded upon. This leaves a lot of “could have been more” moments hanging by the time the show ends. At least the action is satisfying high octane eye candy as Jon Favreau’s steady directing hand brings out the intensity of every battle scene. Special effects are top notch as usual except for a couple of cartoony looking moments that do require some suspension of disbelief, for example the briefcase that transforms into an iron man armor with armor parts seemingly appearing from out of nowhere.

By the time the all too familiar final battle is over and the credits start rolling, one gets the impression that Iron Man 2 could have been a lot more than the sum of its parts. A little longer running time would have fixed most of the story kinks but perhaps Marvel is merely using this movie as a money generator and spring board to something greater.(Blatant teasers are thrown into the narrative itself almost like a running catalog of future Marvel film projects).

Topping the first film is no easy feat and of course Iron Man 2 would disappoint a few here and there. But it is nonetheless one of the most entertaining comic book movies that mixes action, wit, drama and cast chemistry so well. If widespread appeal is its purpose, then Iron Man 2 has fulfilled that function magnificently in that even a newcomer to the franchise can kick back and enjoy the show. Marvel studios has started a new legacy beyond great comics. Here is a legacy of comic book movies, true to the spirit of its source material yet tailored nicely to the tastes of the modern movie audience.

 

8 out of 10 stars

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Iron Man (2008) – Movie Review

By 2008, there were already a bunch of Marvel movies on the market, all presented as a big mixed cluster of varying quality and quantity. After pulling itself together as its own studio, Marvel kicked off Phase 1 of its new movie-making universe with Iron Man.

From start to finish, this is one cool film. It is very sharply-made, with a very slick and high-quality look and feel. It’s evenly-paced, with equal parts color, comedy, and action. And when the action hits, it is really cool stuff, without going too far overboard. Among Iron Man’s heroics, my favorite scene shows him rocketing to the other side of the world, to use his high-tech suit to beat up violent extremists to protect the innocent (blowing up a tank in the process, before being pursued by American jets in a great high-speed air chase scene). The film’s climax features an all-out fight between two high-powered suits, during which there’s plenty of mass destruction. Even when there aren’t guns and rockets going off, the film is still a blast with its colorful inter-character exchanges, funny suit-testing scenes, tense inter-corporate conspiracies.

The story this film tells is a great one. The origins of Iron Man is inherently compelling, as it takes a greedy, narcissistic arms dealer and flips him on his head to turn him into a hero. The film does so by plunging the character into the heart of the very problems he’s created (in a war-town part of the world nonetheless). Once Tony Stark dedicates himself to being Iron Man, the conflict shifts to him confronting everybody else around him. Through all the struggles he endures, the film lays out rich characterization and interesting thematic material worth exploring.

This film looks splendid, with quality photography and editing. Acting is quite spot-on: Robert Downey Jr. is perfectly cast as the title character, and he remains iconic through every other Marvel project he’s in from here on out. Gweneth Paltrow, Jeff Bridges, Terrence Howard, Shaun Toub, and everybody else is great to watch as well. Writing is pretty good and sharp. This production uses spectacular-looking sets, props, and costumes. Most special effects hold up well, and are awesome to behold. Ramin Djawadi’s music score is pretty cool too.

The first Iron Man film has everything you can ask for in a superhero film: thrilling action, amusing humor, a decent story, and characters we can care about. Even after having numerous other Marvel films come out since, this is still the biggest must-see of the lot.

 

9 out of 10 stars

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