Justice League

“That man won’t quit as long as he can still draw a breath. None of my teammates will. Me? I’ve got a different problem. I feel like I live in a world made of cardboard, always taking constant care not to break something, to break someone. Never allowing myself to lose control even for a moment, or someone could die. But you can take it, can’t you, big man? What we have here is a rare opportunity for me to cut loose and show you just how powerful I really am!”

Just thought I’d preface the review with a quote from one of the greatest Justice League stories ever made for a screen. Sadly, it’s not from this movie.

Warning: The following contains spoilers for Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You know, in case you care.

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Justice League
Director: Zack Snyder (and a bit of Joss Whedon)
Writers: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Starring: Gal Gadot, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, etc.
Music by: Danny Elfman
Rated PG-13

Superman is dead. A cave troll and some very stupid writing have left planet Earth without its greatest hero. This has not only given most of the world’s population a major case of the blues, it’s also left us without a sure-fire defense against alien invaders. So naturally, an alien invades: a fellow by the name of Steppenwolf, who brings an army of Parademons (basically giant bugs that feed on fear) to help him find three ancient artefacts hidden on Earth, which, if united, would turn the world into a copy of his apocalyptic home planet. In order to stop this threat, a newly non-homicidal Batman teams up with Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg to form what will become the Justice League.

My expectations for this movie were on the low end, to put it mildly. I hated Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, and since Justice League was mostly being made by the same people, I mostly expected it to be another dumpster fire–especially when I read rumours about a lot of chaotic re-shoots and re-workings going on behind the scenes. The only reason I paid money to see it before the DVD release was because of Wonder Woman–and trust me, it’s a sad day when the promise of Batman isn’t enough to get me into a theatre.

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I mean, normally I’d pay money for this shot alone.

So I was pleasantly surprised when this turned out to be…not a complete dumpster fire. Justice League is not a great movie. It’s not even really a good movie, by most standards. But I enjoyed it more than I didn’t, and it’s leagues (heh) ahead of all the other non-Wonder Woman DC movies so far.

I think it’s mainly because this movie, unlike some of its predecessors, focuses all its energy on the most important part of storytelling: the characters. I felt like I knew where all the major characters were coming from, and I found them all quite likable. Batman is much more human than he was in his previous movie, and far less stupid, coming up with many new methods of dealing with his problems that don’t involve shooting them. Wonder Woman is her usual gorgeous, awesome self. The Flash is endearing and hilarious. Aquaman is a little too “surfer dude” for my taste, but he has his cool moments, and it’s pretty awesome to see his water-controlling powers come to life in live-action. The only character who didn’t really do much for me was Cyborg. I’ve always found him boring in other incarnations, and this movie didn’t do anything to change that. But that might just be me.

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Also, his CGI body weirds me out.

Not only do most of these characters work on their own, they’re great together. The best scenes in the movie involve the whole team hanging out and talking. Batman and Wonder Woman have a great relationship (Possibly a romantic one? Will I get my cartoon ship yet?) and, surprisingly, he’s a really great mentor figure to The Flash. Flash and Cyborg also have some nice camaraderie, even though I don’t care for the latter all that much.

Unfortunately, while good central characters are the most important part of storytelling, having a good plot is also kind of important. And this movie doesn’t have that. Steppenwolf is one of the most pathetic villains I’ve ever seen in a superhero movie, which is saying something. He has no personality, he doesn’t look intimidating at all, and his goals couldn’t be more generic if they tried. This movie’s story is such a copy-paste job from other, better movies that I could predict every single plot point at least five minutes before it happened. There’s no suspense. There are no stakes. At no point did I believe that the world or the Justice League were in any real danger. And no, constantly showing one single family in danger (in a place where at least a few hundred people should have been living, no less) did not help with that.

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There’s a reason this guy isn’t one of Darkseid’s more famous minions.

The movie also feels extremely rushed at times. It’s less than two hours long, and it felt like large chunks of footage must have been cut out at the last minute. In fact, everything I’ve heard about the behind-the-scenes drama seems to support that conclusion. There are a lot of jokes, doubtless to make up for everyone complaining about the first two movies’ self-seriousness, and most of them work, but some feel rather forced and out of place. But at least there aren’t as many unintentionally hilarious moments as in some other Marthas–I mean, movies.

Now, I’m going to get into some spoilers here, because it’s impossible to fully discuss my feelings on this movie without them. But I should clarify that this is only a spoiler for people who A) know nothing about the Justice League, B) don’t watch many superhero movies, and C) have never been to any of the nerdier corners of the internet. If that describes you (and you still somehow want to see this movie), don’t read on.

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Just enjoy this picture of Barry Allen smiling.

SPOILERS AHEAD

Yeah, Superman comes back to life in this movie. It is indeed shocking that the DCEU wouldn’t permanently kill off its most recognisable character after two movies, but there you have it.

The funny thing is, his entire existence here feels like one massive apology for those other two movies. First, Batman spends the first half of the movie talking about how Superman was “a beacon of hope for the world,” which is laughable if you remember what he was like before, and how the public viewed him in BvS. I mean, I’m all for forgetting those movies ever existed, but if Justice League was going to do that, Supes shouldn’t have been dead in the first place.

Then, when he does show up, it turns out he’s undergone a complete personality change, so that he actually acts like that “beacon of hope” we know and love from just about every other incarnation of the character. The movie goes out of its way to show him rescuing civilians, joking around with his teammates, using under-utilised powers like his ice breath, and even smiling. And you know what? I really enjoyed that. Henry Cavill is still not my favourite actor, and his digitally-removed moustache did him no favours in some scenes, but at least he finally felt like a Superman I could root for.

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“I really like being alive.”

Overall, I think Justice League would be great if it was a DC Animated Original Movie. In terms of pacing, story quality, and action, it’s about on par with Justice League: War or one of the other middling cartoon features. But as the very first big-screen appearance of arguably the most iconic super-team of all time, it leaves much to be desired. I’m hoping this was the first step towards a truly great DC team-up movie, and not the death knell of the franchise (which I’m worried it could be).

But for now, I’m afraid that if you want a really fun, intelligent, well-written Justice League story, with great characters and great action, your best bet is still a kids’ cartoon.

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For one thing, it’s got a Green Lantern.

Grade: B-

 

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The Punisher Season 1

We started off the month with a fun, colourful Marvel comedy about a Norse god who fires magic lightning at other gods during big space battles. So now it’s time for something completely different.

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The Punisher
Creator: Steve Lightfoot
Starring: Jon Bernthal, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Amber Rose Revah
Music By: Tyler Bates
Rated TV-MA

Warning: Both the review and the show assume you have seen Season 2 of Netflix’s Daredevil.

The latest Marvel/Netflix show opens with Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, hunting down the last surviving members of the three gangs that killed his family. His revenge seemingly complete, he grows a beard, changes his identity, gets a job as a construction worker, and tries to live something resembling a normal life. To no one’s surprise, he fails. But it’s okay, because it turns out his revenge isn’t as complete as he thought. No, his family’s deaths were part of a larger conspiracy that began during his combat days in Afghanistan and could reach all the way up the ranks of the U.S. military and CIA. Frank teams up with a hacker called Micro, who has also been screwed over by the government, to find the masterminds behind this conspiracy and take them down. Meanwhile, a Homeland Security agent named Dinah Madani is investigating the death of her partner in the same part of Afghanistan where Frank served, and a couple of Frank’s war buddies become interested in his fight for very different reasons.

First of all, I want to point out that this show has the second best opening title sequence of the Marvel/Netflix ‘verse so far. Slow, gritty, Western-styled theme music reminiscent of Johnny Cash plays over a montage of guns being assembled and fired in slow motion, until they all come together to make the Punisher’s skull logo. Watch that title sequence, and you know exactly what you’re in for with this series.

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Brought to you by Disney.

I went into this with very mixed expectations. On the one hand, the Punisher (or more specifically, Jon Bernthal’s performance as the Punisher) was easily the best thing about Daredevil‘s second season. On the other hand, the Marvel/Netflix shows have been going steadily downhill ever since that season, and as much as I loved Frank in his supporting role, I wasn’t sure he had enough story and substance to carry a whole show by himself. Besides, in case you couldn’t tell from the name, or the fact that his logo is a skull, the Punisher is a bit…intense. I have a strong stomach for TV violence, but I do have limits, and Frank pushed them even in his relatively short subplot on Daredevil.

Some of my fears were well founded. This first season suffers from the same pacing problems that have plagued every Marvel/Netflix show since Daredevil Season 1. It’s not as bad as Luke Cage or Iron Fist, but it does drag a bit towards the middle, and I feel it could have been shortened to nine or ten episodes without losing anything super important.

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I wasn’t always THIS glued to the screen.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of story we got in this show. I was worried it would be nothing but a 13-hour bloodbath with barely any plot…which, no doubt, is what some other fans were hoping for. Instead, this show gives us a complex story, tons of character development, and some fairly hard-hitting social commentary. Even when the characters are just sitting around and talking, I’m usually not bored, because I’m actually interested in these characters and what they have to say. I think that’s the main reason the slow pacing didn’t bother me as much as it did in some of The Punisher‘s sister shows.

The Punisher’s first appearance established that much of his unique brand of brokenness comes from his experiences as a Marine serving in Afghanistan. This show fleshes out that aspect of his backstory significantly, showing how the war was already starting to turn him into the Punisher before his family’s deaths finished the job. The show also uses his issues as a jumping-off point to examine the problems that face many modern veterans coming home from combat: from the difficulty of finding a job to PTSD to the feeling of isolation from “normal” society. To say the U.S. military isn’t shown in a very favourable light here would be an understatement. Most of the high-ranking officials we see are corrupt scumbags who care more about grabbing power for themselves than protecting their country. The veterans we see, even those who end up committing terrible crimes themselves, are universally portrayed as victims of a system that has lied to them, used them, and cast them aside like worthless pawns. When superhero shows tackle real-life issues, it doesn’t always go smoothly, but in this case I found it heartbreakingly effective. While this show may have exaggerated things a bit, it’s no secret that real-life vets often have a tough time coming home. And while I have no first-hand experience with the subject myself, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that some of the biggest Punisher fans I know are active or ex-military.

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“I don’t know what the rules are anymore.”

It’s 2017 in America, so of course the whole gun control debate comes up as well. But the show doesn’t really take a stance on the issue. It ridicules the extremes on both sides by way of a slimy, hypocritical gun control advocate and an NRA member who acts like a walking, talking right-wing Twitter troll. Frank himself just does his thing without worrying about the politics. He’s the kind of guy who would find a way to keep a fully-stocked gun arsenal if he were in Sweden…and even if he couldn’t,  the average gun-toting American still wouldn’t stand a chance against him.

Speaking of gun violence, there is some. Also some fist violence. And knife violence. And bomb violence. And…let’s just say that, even in a show where Frank manages to go several episodes without actually “punishing” anyone, this is still, by far, the bloodiest thing the MCU has produced. I had to look away during some of the fight scenes in the last few episodes. But while it may be a bit excessive at times, most of the blood and gore feels earned. It’s not there merely for shock value–it’s just a part of the world the Punisher lives in, thanks to the way his crappy experiences have twisted his mind. It also helps that it’s made very clear just how messed-up Frank is, and that he and people like him are presented as tragic, broken figures rather than heroes. I often wonder how much of something one can show onscreen without glorifying it, but I think this show comes pretty close to showing lots of violence without making it seem “cool” or lessening its impact.

I said pretty close. I mean, there is a car chase at one point. And the Punisher’s one-liners can be pretty hilarious.

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HRUUUUUUUHHH!!!

And speaking of things that don’t need to be on screen, there are also a couple sex scenes towards the middle that I really could have done without.

But what makes the show work is that it focuses more on the characters than the violence. Jon Bernthal continues to be incredible in the title role, providing Frank with some much-needed humanity while still selling his animalistic rage whenever he’s in Punisher mode. His supporting cast is great, too–particularly Ebon Moss-Bachrach as Micro and Ben Barnes as an old friend of Frank’s named Billy Russo. One of the most enjoyable parts of the show for me was the bromance that develops between Frank and Micro, despite their very different personalities. Frank’s relationship with Karen Page also gets some more time in this show…and whether you want to interpret their bond as romantic or not (it’s somewhat ambiguous), I think Karen is definitely at her best when she’s with Frank. And vice versa. Madani makes some rather poor choices over the course of the season, but she’s still very sympathetic. A veteran named Lewis who struggles with PTSD gives us a surprisingly emotional subplot. And all the villains are despicable enough to deserve everything they get at the Punisher’s hands.

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I ship it.

The online reaction to this show has been mixed so far, from both critics and fans. I can understand why. If you’re squeamish about blood and violence, this is going to be too much for you. If you’re a die-hard fan of the Punisher comics, it may not be violent enough for you. If your political views are too far to either the right or the left, there are some bits here that will offend you. It’s extremely different in tone from any other MCU work–even the other Netflix shows. And then there are those annoying pacing problems.

But personally, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this show. It moved me emotionally, and it made me think hard about some real-life problems in my society. Overall, I think The Punisher is tied with Jessica Jones as my second favourite Marvel/Netflix show. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of Daredevil, but I’m not sure any superhero show can.

I’m just happy to see the Netflix ‘verse returning to form. Welcome back, Frank.

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“You scary, beautiful man!”

Grade: A-

 

Train to Busan

I’ve been in a zombie mood lately. Not sure if it’s because the zombie army in Thor: Ragnarok whetted my appetite, or because I’ve just been paying too much attention to the news. Whatever the reason, I felt it was high time to check out this Korean flick.

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Train to Busan
Director: Sang-ho Yeon
Writers: Sang-ho Yeon and Joo-Suk Park
Starring: Yoo Gong and Su-an Kim
Music by: Young-gyu Jang
Not Rated

Seok-woo is a recently-divorced businessman who’s too busy to spend much time with his young daughter, Su-an. She wants to visit her mother for her birthday, so he reluctantly agrees to take her on the long train ride from Seoul to Busan–partly to make up for missing her recital the day before. Unfortunately for everyone, the day they choose to board the train happens to be the same day the zombie apocalypse breaks out in Korea. Pretty soon a father-daughter jaunt across the country turns into a life-or-undeath race to what might be the only safe place left.

Out of the zombie movies I’ve seen (which, admittedly, is a relatively small number), this is easily one of the best. It’s got quiet suspense and explosive action. It’s got ghoulishly convincing zombie actors and even better regular actors (particularly the little girl who plays Su-an). Most importantly, it’s got all the moral dilemmas and emotional turmoil that really flesh out every decent tale of the living dead.

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Heh, get it? “Flesh” out? I’m hilarious.

That being said, there were a few things that took me out of it a bit. This is the first Korean film I’ve seen, so this may have partly stemmed from my unfamiliarity with the style, but it felt a bit long to me, even at just under two hours. The pacing is very episodic: the survivors get through one intense action scene, get a minute to catch their breaths, and then go into a completely different intense action scene–usually in a different location, since the train is always moving. While there is certainly a dramatic climax, we don’t get the gradual build-up to that climax that I’m used to in movies, and I think that made this one seem longer than it was. Also, while the acting is good throughout and the script is well-written (as far as I can tell from the subtitles, anyway), the movie is not exactly subtle. A few of the emotional moments struck me as ever so slightly over the top.

But these are minor issues, which might have more to do with my expectations than the movie’s quality. Train to Busan is not trying to say anything super philosophical or revolutionise the zombie genre or anything like that–it’s just intended to be a fun, scary, emotional thrill ride. And it does that extremely well. One reason it works so well is that it really takes time to develop the characters. It can be hard for me to care about the people in a story like this, when I go in expecting most of them to be zombie food by the end. But here, long before things start getting bitey, the filmmakers give us a solid glimpse into the lives of our father-daughter duo, the short-tempered beefy guy, the pregnant mother, the two elderly sisters, the shy teenage baseball player, and his maybe-girlfriend. As a result, by the time the insanity hits, I’m invested in their stories and want them to survive.

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Also because some of them are awesome.

The movie also avoids the common horror trap of making its characters stupid. The survivors we follow for most of the movie are constantly coming up with smart, creative ways to stay alive. Poor decision-making is at a minimum, except among characters who are clearly painted as evil and/or insane. But awesome zombie-killing is at a maximum, whether the weapons of choice are a baseball bat, a riot shield, or an entire freaking train. With fast zombies, rapid infection, and not a single gun in sight, the set-up really puts our heroes at a disadvantage, but they still manage to overcome obstacle after obstacle in spectacular fashion.

For me, the most important conflict in any good zombie story is not the heroes’ struggle to survive, but their struggle to retain their humanity. This movie is no exception. Every character who lives long enough reacts to the zombie apocalypse in a different way. Some show their true colours as selfish cowards, particularly one loathsome train attendant who causes most of the problems in the latter half of the movie. Others rise to the occasion and become heroes. At first, Seok-woo is only out to protect himself and his daughter, but as the film goes on, he starts to realise the importance of helping others, even at great cost to himself. And thanks to the zombies, he finally gets the chance to prove himself as a father.

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“Happy birthday!”

Overall, despite some minor issues I had with the pacing, I had a ton of fun with this movie. It’s an intense, emotional rollercoaster with lots of well-filmed action and a great cast of characters.

Also, I really miss train travel.

Grade: A

Thor: Ragnarok

He comes from the land of ice and snow, from the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow…and he has never been this much fun.

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Thor: Ragnarok
Director: Taika Waititi
Writers: Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, etc.
Music by: Mark Mothersbaugh
Rated PG-13

The third Thor movie begins with our hero on a quest to avert the destruction of Asgard, about which he’s been having ominous visions ever since Avengers: Age of Ultron. But when he returns home after a seemingly successful mission, he finds that Loki has impersonated Odin in order to take over the throne–again. Thor tracks down the real Odin with Loki’s reluctant help, only to find that they’re too late: in the Allfather’s absence, his oldest and most powerful child–Hela, the goddess of death–has escaped from prison to wreak havoc on Asgard. And just to show she’s not an empty threat, the first thing Hela does after showing up is destroy Thor’s hammer and banish him and Loki to a planet of castaways. There, Thor is forced into a gladiatorial death match against none other than his old friend the Hulk, while Hela turns his home world into a new version of, well, Hel.

Sounds pretty dire, right? Pretty worthy of a title referring to the end of days and the death of the gods in Norse mythology? Well, the funny thing about Ragnarok is that it’s a comedy. And I’m not talking about a movie like The Avengers, which has lots of funny bits but is still primarily an action flick. Nope, this is a quirky outer-space comedy that happens to have action in it.

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“He’s a friend from work!”

I’ve read a lot of comments from comic fans on the internet who take issue with this. And if you went into this movie expecting it to be a dark, serious epic, I can definitely understand being disappointed. Despite all the earth-shattering events that happen to Thor in this movie, there’s hardly a moment that seems meant to be taken seriously. But while turning a story like this into a comedy is a bit of an odd move, it’s such a brilliant comedy that I, personally, wasn’t bothered at all.

I’ll be honest: Thor has never been my favourite Avenger. He’s got some great lore behind him, and Chris Hemsworth is great in the role, but he’s always felt weighed down by annoying supporting characters, a spotlight-stealing villain, and less-than-inspired storytelling. This movie fixes all those problems. With the exception of Loki and Heimdall, all of Thor’s side characters either fail to show up or get killed within the first 20 minutes. They are then replaced with new and excellent side characters: a hard-drinking Valkyrie with a heart of gold, a hilarious talking rock named Korg (played excellently by the director), the conflicted evil henchman Skurge, and Jeff Goldblum as himself. We also get the Hulk at his most interesting (and articulate), and Hela, played by Cate Blanchett at her absolute hammiest. It’s an amazing cast full of actors who appear to be having the time of their lives.

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And now we know what Dark Lord Galadriel would’ve looked like.

This is also the first Marvel movie in which Loki has made sense to me. He started out as a sympathetic, Shakespeare-style villain in the first movie, and has since gone back and forth between a cartoonishly evil megalomaniac and a brooding anti-hero, depending on who’s writing him, so his motivations have never seemed all that consistent. Ragnarok clears it up: he’s the God of Mischief, so he’s always looking to play a trick on someone. Whether it’s the good guys or the bad guys mainly depends on his mood. And here he manages to have some great character moments and one-liners in this movie without ever stealing the spotlight from Thor.

Speaking of the God of Thunder, he’s at his best here, showing just how far he’s come from the arrogant, immature prince of the first movie by showing real brains and leadership in a number of desperate situations. His relationship with both Bruce Banner and the Hulk, which wasn’t really explored in previous Avengers movies, gets some welcome screen time in this one. He also gets to throw around more lightning and thunder than ever before, and it is awesome.

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Honestly, God of Lightning might make more sense as a title.

What amazes me most about Ragnarok, though, is that it feels just as much like a Taika Waititi film as it does a Marvel film. Marvel tends to have such a tight grip on its properties that the directors of individual movies often don’t get much of a chance to show off their own unique styles. And sure, this movie has some of the Marvel staples–an army of faceless mooks for the heroes to mow down, a gratuitous Stan Lee cameo, lots of references to past and future MCU films–but it’s also missing some of the most annoying Marvel tropes, like blatant product placement and a boring villain (Hela isn’t the best MCU villain by a long way, but she sure isn’t boring). And based on what I’ve seen of his earlier work in indie comedies, the humour, dialogue and storytelling style in this movie are all Waititi’s.

One of Waititi’s storytelling strengths is the ability to make a funny movie about serious events, without cheapening the events themselves. So when Thor and company undergo major traumatic experiences in this movie, I still feel their impact, even if they’re immediately followed by jokes. More importantly, it’s clear that the characters feel the impact. Thor may be an overall cheerful guy, but he’s not just going to shrug off something like the loss of Mjolnir in a second. The jokes are there to help the audience–and the characters, in some cases–avoid getting bogged down in depressing stuff. There are a few moments in the movie that I wish had carried just a bit more dramatic weight, but for the most part, it has a good balance between comedy and tragedy.

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“We’re not doing ‘get help.’ It’s humiliating.”

If I were in a nitpicky mood, I could point out a few possible flaws in Ragnarok: one or two rather obvious green screen shots, a couple minor plot points that weren’t fully explained, etc. But let’s be real. This movie has a battle between a zombie army, a giant wolf, the Hulk, a Valkyrie wielding a Gatling gun, and the God of Thunder at his most thundersome, all scored to “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. Why in the Nine Realms would anyone want to nitpick something that awesome?

Instead, I’ll just be grateful that Thor has finally gotten the movie he deserves.

Grade: A for Asgard

Stranger Things 2

Hold onto your Eggos, my friends! Stranger Things is back!

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Stranger Things 2
Creators: Matt and Ross Duffer
Starring: Millie Bobby Brown, Winona Ryder, David Harbour, Noah Schnapp, etc.
Music By: Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
Rated TV-14

(Warning: The following assumes you have seen Season 1 of Stranger Things. Spoilers may abound.)

Season 2 of the ridiculously popular Netflix show starts in October of 1984, about a year after the events of the first season. The Byers household is back together again, with Joyce dating a supremely normal guy named Bob, and Will getting some much-needed therapy. The group of kids we followed in the first season have moved on from their traumatic experiences enough to focus on the really important stuff: celebrating Halloween and impressing the new girl at school. But all of them have a few lingering emotional issues, especially Mike and Nancy, who are still mourning their lost friends. As promised by the trailers, Eleven is alive and well after her apparent heroic sacrifice in the season finale, but she’s still in hiding. And it seems that, even after surviving a weeks-long ordeal of hiding from monsters in a terrifying hell dimension, Will Byers still can’t catch a break. He’s having frequent visions of the Upside Down–visions that seem a little too real. Visions that include glimpses of a huge, shadowy presence who seems very interested in the people of Hawkins, Indiana. Visions that are increasingly reflected in the mysterious blight poisoning the town’s crops.

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Dead pumpkins on Halloween are never a good sign.

One of the many retro sci-fi classics that have influenced Stranger Things from the beginning is Alien. It’s where the creators got the idea to have people cocooned and impregnated by a monster in the first season, but the series also seems to have borrowed some of its atmosphere of suspense and dread, along with the idea of giving the audience just a few scant glimpses of the monster until the grand finale. Well, if Season 1 was Alien, Season 2 is Aliens. It’s much bigger in scope, with more monsters, more action, and more Paul Reiser (he plays the scientist who replaces Dr. Brenner at Hawkins Lab). People tend to be split over whether they prefer the creepy, suspenseful horror movie that was Alien, or the full-blown action thriller that was its sequel. I suspect there’ll be a similar rift in opinions regarding this series. The second season is a bit more fast-paced and epic in scope, uses more big-budget effects, and tries some new ideas–like a particularly controversial episode that takes place entirely outside Hawkins. Some people may take issue with the changes in tone and be disappointed with the new season.

But I’m more of an Aliens fan myself, and to me, this second season does everything a good sequel should do. It expands the world of the original, raises the stakes, and moves the characters forward, with better effects thrown in as a bonus.

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Something tells me you’d need more than gasoline and a bat to defeat this thing.

Of course, this season is not perfect, any more than the first one was. The aforementioned controversial outside-Hawkins episode, while necessary to the overall story arc in my opinion, was placed in a rather odd spot considering what happens in the episodes immediately before and after it. And it contains a few annoying characters who I hope we’ll never hear from again. The season also spends more time than I would prefer on the ongoing love triangle between Nancy, Steve, and Jonathan. Outside that annoying subplot, Nancy and Jonathan are given less to do this season than before, which hurts both of their already less-than-strong characters. As for Steve…well, I’ll get to him later. Out of the characters introduced this season, the weakest is probably Max, the girl who moves to Hawkins with her step-brother in the first episode. She gets a few good moments in near the end, and her newcomer status creates some interesting situations with the boys, but for most of the season she seems to be there mainly so the group can have a new token girl.

My other complaints are pretty nit-picky, but they bugged me enough to mention. The larger budget for this season clearly allowed the creators to include more classic ’80s songs…but I think they went a little overboard including them in the soundtrack. I love classic rock as much as the next person, but if you use snippets of five different great songs within the first half hour of the first episode, the impact is greatly lessened. Also, a few other companies must have noticed the sales boost Eggo got from the first season, because the product placement is everywhere this time around. KFC and Three Musketeers candy bars practically get their own mini-commercials. It’s as annoying as it is inevitable.

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“It’s finger lickin’ good.”

Fortunately, all these flaws are overshadowed by the awesomeness of everything else in Season 2. I’m not quite sure where to begin, honestly, because everything about this story is so cool. First of all, the monster is ten times scarier this time around–not because it’s bigger, or scarier-looking, but because of what it can do. An extra-dimensional threat that can pop through your wall at any time is one thing; but an extra-dimensional threat that can send its evil essence to infect your world and your very soul, so gradually that you barely notice until it’s too late, is quite another. The army of mini-monsters it brings with it is just icing. There were hints of a larger supernatural world in the first season, but Season 2 is a straight-up cosmic horror story. My favourite kind!

But the monsters aren’t what make Stranger Things great. Neither is ’80s nostalgia, which is still present in spades this season. The heart of the story has always been about human interactions between the characters in the face of whatever threat they’re dealing with. And boy, does Season 2 give us some great character moments. We get to see a lot of new relationships between characters who didn’t really interact in the first season–like Dustin and Steve, who make a surprisingly awesome duo, and Chief Hopper and Eleven, who form a very touching (though complicated) father-daughter dynamic over the course of the season. And some characters who were a bit out of focus last year get much more development here. The best example is Will, who, despite driving most of the plot in the first season, barely got any screen time. That is more than remedied this season, as he once again drives the plot by becoming an unwilling conduit of the evil entering Hawkins. This means his actor, Noah Schnapp, finally gets to show off his acting chops–and it turns out he’s arguably the most talented in a cast full of amazing child performers. He delivers some of the most terrifying and heart-breaking moments in the season, and he pulls it off with a nuance plenty of adult actors would envy.

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“He likes it cold.”

Then there are the characters we already knew were awesome, but who become more so in Season 2. Steve Harrington, the annoying jock everyone hated at the beginning of the series, has fully graduated to “lovable action hero” status. He’s still flawed, to be sure, but it’s quite clear that he’s working hard to leave his old, irresponsible ways behind. With the help of his trusty nail bat, of course. His is one of the better character arcs I’ve seen in a TV show. Dustin and Lucas are also a bit more in focus this season. We even get to see enough of their home lives to learn that Dustin’s adorableness came from his mom and Lucas’s little sister is a force to be reckoned with. Lucas, whose paranoia sometimes got on my nerves in the first season, becomes much more likable here, and Dustin, the voice of reason last year, makes a few more mistakes this time around. And yet, he remains adorable.

Then there are the new characters we’re introduced to this season. Out of these, the best by far is Bob Newby, Joyce’s new boyfriend. He’s automatically awesome because he’s played by Sam Gamgee, but he becomes even more so after we learn that he’s a lovable dork who makes dad jokes, tries hard to cheer up Will, and shows unexpected bravery and brains in the face of danger, despite not liking scary movies. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Billy, Max’s step-brother, who fills in the “horrible jock we love to hate” slot that was vacated by Steve’s decision to become a decent person. With his hideous mullet, casual racism, and tendency to beat up children for fun, it doesn’t look like he’ll be leaving that spot anytime soon. But with the Hawkins Lab scientists showing a bit less malevolence than they did before, he does an excellent job filling the role of the season’s human villain. Then there’s Kali, the person most responsible for expanding the show’s horizons this season. She may not be the strongest character  Stranger Things has ever produced, but she does play a vital role in Eleven’s development, and I have to admit, I kind of like her style.

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Can’t compete with Punk!Eleven, though. 

All these character arcs and relationships build into a finale that is both epic and very emotionally satisfying. I got pretty choked up a few times in the last episode, both in a happy way and a sad way. My only concern is that I’m not sure how a third season can top this one, especially with most of the loose ends from Season 1 tied up already. But the finale makes it clear the Upside Down still has a few tricks left up its sleeve. Let’s hope the writers do, too.

Until then, at least the two seasons we’ve got are “totally tubular.”

Grade: A

Blade Runner 2049

At the beginning of the year, I said I wasn’t going to review any sequels (except superhero-related ones). Well, I already broke that rule with War for the Planet of the Apes, and I’m about to break it again, because I can’t not talk about this movie.

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Blade Runner 2049
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writers: Hampton Fancher and Michael Green
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas
Music by: Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer
Rated R

If you’ve seen the original Blade Runner, you know the setup. (If you haven’t seen the original Blade Runner, I’d highly recommend watching it before the sequel.) Thirty more years into the alternate future imagined there, Los Angeles is just as polluted, overcrowded, and full of the incredibly lifelike androids known as replicants. Ryan Gosling plays a blade runner named K, whose job description is the same as Deckard’s in the first movie: hunt down and kill–erm, excuse me, “retire”–rogue replicants. His job is a little easier, though, because only a few long-lived older replicants are still willing to rebel against their human masters. The newer models, the movie’s opening text tells us, are programmed to be more obedient. But during a run-of-the-mill investigation, K uncovers a secret that leads to a much bigger mystery, and ultimately causes him to question his own identity.

I am a fan of the original Blade Runner–up to a point. When I first watched the Final Cut (there are, like, five different versions of the movie, but that’s the only one I’ve seen), I fell in love with its bleak yet beautiful vision of the future, its neo-noir atmosphere, and its haunting soundtrack. It’s the movie that got me hooked on cyberpunk. But I felt the story left a lot to be desired. I didn’t care about any of the characters (not even Harrison Ford’s–and I love Harrison Ford), and the plot was a pretty basic detective story that, while entertaining, didn’t really seem to warrant all the philosophising and faux symbolism piled on top of it.

So I’m pleased to say that 2049 is better.First of all, as gorgeous as the first movie was, the sequel blows it away in terms of cinematography. With its rich colours, its desolate city landscapes and its shiny futuristic tech, it’s easily one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever seen. Every shot feels like a work of art all by itself. And while the soundtrack isn’t quite as imaginative as the original, it still has plenty of lovely, synth-heavy melodies to add to the atmosphere.

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Radioactive wastelands have never looked better.

But more importantly, this movie has what the original lacked: a heart. Unlike his predecessor, K is a very sympathetic character despite his morally questionable job.  He’s a calm, stoic guy who seems to accept his role as a small cog in the big machine that preserves what passes for “order” in his society, but as the movie goes on, we find out that a part of him longs for a greater purpose in his life. In a world where human beings can be manufactured as easily as toilet seats (and get about the same amount of respect), K wants to be special, to feel that his life has meaning. It’s a desire most of us can relate to. And K’s not alone in this movie’s universe. His girlfriend, Joi, is also looking for more substance in her life, although her motives are a bit of a puzzle. Even the villains want to make their world a less artificial place–for their own twisted purposes, of course.  Even Deckard, when he shows up this time around, lets his gruff attitude slip often enough to reveal that he, too, longs for a genuine relationship with someone else. As one character says, “We’re all looking out for something real.” Between the excellent acting and the greatly improved story, I ended up caring deeply about most of the people in this movie–human, replicant and other. The original Blade Runner made me think, which is good; but this one made me feel.

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“You’ve never seen a miracle.”

You don’t have to be a film expert to tell this movie is a masterpiece of visual storytelling. But, like its predecessor, it’s a flawed masterpiece. A lot of people will probably balk at its length, which is close to three hours. I grew up on The Lord of the Rings extended editions and marathons of BBC miniseries, though, so the length really didn’t bother me. It’s somewhat slow-paced for a big blockbuster, but that’s because it needs to be in order to fully develop its characters and themes. And it has plenty of fist fights and explosions for those patient enough to wait for them. That being said, there are a couple of scenes I could have done without–mainly those involving Jared Leto as one of the main villains. Something about the way he talks just makes it hard for me to take the guy seriously. He came off a bit too much like a pop star trying to be “edgy,” rather than the evil genius he was supposed to be.

Speaking of scenes I could have done without…I did not go into this movie with high expectations regarding its representation of women. After all, in the original Blade Runner, the only female characters were literal sex objects, and the “romance” that drove much of the plot was questionably consensual at best. 2049 is a bit better in that area–in fact, it arguably has more plot-relevant female characters than male ones. But it also has  a giant hologram of a naked woman strutting through L.A. as an advertisement for a virtual girlfriend who is “Everything You Want to See” and “Everything You Want to Hear.” So…there’s that.

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And I thought Victoria’s Secret ads were bad.

To be fair, I’m pretty sure imagery like that (which occurs frequently throughout the film) is meant to highlight the shallowness and debauchery of this dystopian society, with its tendency to treat living, thinking beings like disposable objects. But here’s the thing about working in a visual medium: you can’t criticise the objectification of women and parade CGI-manipulated images of naked women through your movie at the same time. That’s contributing to the problem, not solving it. And while it may not be surprising in a Blade Runner sequel, it is pretty disappointing coming from the director behind a wonderful female-driven sci-fi film like Arrival.

But just because I disagree with some of the execution, that doesn’t mean 2049 has nothing to say worth listening to. Quite the contrary.

Many essays could be written–and will be, no doubt–about the many implications of this movie’s premise on issues like racism, classism, the ethics of A.I. and the mysteries of reproduction, just to name a few prominent themes. There’s no doubt that, despite the flying cars and highly advanced robots, the Blade Runner universe is bleak and miserable in ways that sometimes feel uncomfortably familiar.  The climate’s a wreck, whole cities have been turned into literal trash heaps or nuclear wastes, and a large section of the population is treated as sub-human slave labour…but at least those omnipresent hologram ads are still there to distract us with Coke, Sony products, and virtual girlfriends. ‘Murica?

But for me, the heart of this story is in K’s search for identity and purpose. He lives in a world so artificial it’s difficult to tell whether anything is real–even the characters’ own memories–and one of his main goals throughout the movie is to find out how much of his own life is genuine. And while he does get answers by the end of the film, it’s still up to him to decide how those answers will affect his identity. 2049, like its predecessor, spends a lot of time exploring what it means to be human, and it takes a much more definitive stance on the subject by the end. Without giving too much away, I think I can reveal one message I took away from this movie: you don’t have to be “special” in order to make a difference in the world. You just have to do the right thing.

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And sometimes you get your nose broken along the way.

There’s a lot more I could say, but to avoid spoilers and to give my typing fingers a rest, I’ll stop there. This is a movie that sticks in the brain, one that demands multiple viewings to fully unpack all its themes and character arcs. It may be bombing at the box office right now, just like its predecessor (you couldn’t ask for a more faithful sequel, honestly), but I have a feeling people will be talking about Blade Runner 2049 for many years to come.

And did I mention how pretty it is? ‘Cause it’s really pretty.

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SO PRETTY.

Grade: A-

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The Defenders

The team-up between all four of Marvel/Netflix’s superheroes is finally here. Let the hallways of New York City beware!

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The Defenders
Creators: Douglas Petrie and Marco Ramirez
Starring: Charlie Cox, Krysten Ritter, Mike Colter, Finn Jones, Sigourney Weaver, etc.
Music by: John Paesano
Released: Aug. 17, 2017
Rated TV-MA

Warning: This review contains mild spoilers for Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist.

This show picks up our heroes’ stories right where their individual shows left off. Danny Rand and Colleen Wing are hunting down agents of the Hand in Cambodia. Luke Cage has just been released from prison. Jessica Jones is reluctantly getting back into the private eye business, when she’s not busy drowning her remaining mental trauma in booze. And Matt Murdock is back to being a full-time lawyer, having given up the red suit after all the trouble his dual life caused his friends in Daredevil season 2. But a series of seemingly unconnected events–an unusually strong assassin who confronts Danny, a string of murders in Harlem, and a missing architect whose wife comes to Jessica for help–set the four of them on a collision course. Their personalities and backgrounds couldn’t be more different, and they don’t always get along, but when the ultimate goal of the Hand is revealed, they all have to work together in order to save their city.

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They’re basically the poor man’s Avengers.

I’ve had mixed feelings about the solo shows that led up to this one. Jessica Jones and Luke Cage both had plenty of strong points, but also some pretty glaring flaws. And Iron Fist was a let-down in almost every way. On the other hand, I think Daredevil is the greatest live-action superhero show ever made, and by far the best thing the MCU has produced. So my expectations going into their team-up were….cautiously optimistic. And I wasn’t disappointed.

To me, the most enjoyable part of this show is watching the four heroes interact. Like the Avengers in their original movie, much of the Defenders’ charm comes from their clashing personalities. It takes a while for Jessica to get on board with defending the city, since she doesn’t think of herself as a hero and mainly wants to be left alone. Unlike any of the others, Daredevil’s worried about maintaining his secret identity, and Luke Cage, being the nicest of the bunch, just wants to help people while avoiding violence as much as possible. The different baggage each of them brings to the table leads to some dramatic conflicts, but also lots of comic relief. Jessica’s snark vs. Matt’s deadpan seriousness is particularly enjoyable.

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“Jessica Jones, stop talking.”

Going into this show, I was expecting Iron Fist to be the weak link of the team, since his was by far the worst of the solo series. And he kind of is…but fortunately, the writers seem to be aware of that. Danny spends most of this season getting firmly put in his place by the rest of the team. Good guys and bad guys alike beat him up throughout the season, Luke responds to his selfish whining by telling him to check his privilege, and everyone constantly makes fun of his name and backstory. And yet, he’s still more impressive here than he was on his own show. He uses his actual Iron Fist power more often in the first three episodes alone than he did in 13 episodes of Iron Fist, and even his regular martial arts choreography has improved tremendously. He’s still a bit lame compared to the others, but this series did a lot to remove the ill-will I had against him.

The rest of the team members are in fine form here. The kind-hearted, optimistic Luke Cage sort of acts like the Captain America of the group, providing them with a moral centre–and a very handy bullet shield. I forgot how much I appreciated him as a character, and I’m almost warming up to the idea of him and Claire Temple as a couple. (Almost.) Jessica Jones is as bitter, sarcastic, and all-around jerk-ish as ever, but this series brings out more of her heroic side. It also gives her more opportunities than ever to show off her superpowers and detective skills, which is nice.

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Just three normal folks on a subway. Nothing to see here.

But not surprisingly, Daredevil is still the best thing about this show. His character is the most compelling, and his subplots add the most depth to the overall story. Charlie Cox is also the best actor on the Defenders team, in my opinion, though Krysten Ritter is a close second. Naturally, Daredevil ends up as the team leader, and does a pretty good job at it overall, although his personal connections to the Hand sometimes get him and his allies in trouble. While other characters are more important plot-wise, his emotional conflict is really the heart of this series. Out of the four solo shows, I think his will probably be the most affected by events in The Defenders (with the possible exception of Iron Fist), and I’m excited to see where it goes next.

Now let’s talk about the villains. This show finally brings together our favourite evil ninja army’s founders, the “Five Fingers of the Hand,” onscreen. Previous Big Bads Madame Gao and Bakuto are among them, of course, but it turns out their leader is Sigourney Weaver’s character, Alexandra. I think she’s great in the role. There aren’t many over-60 women alive who can be as genuinely intimidating as Sigourney, and she easily dominates every scene she’s in. But in the end, I don’t think the show does as much with her character as it could have. She doesn’t get the detailed Kingpin-style backstory or complicated motivations I was hoping for, and she’s ultimately not as important to the plot as she seems at first. But the show has one female baddie I enjoyed more than I expected: Elektra. As promised by the trailers, she’s back from the dead and more dangerous than ever. And I honestly like her so much better as a full-fledged villain than as an anti-hero. My feelings are still mixed on her relationship with Matt, but at least I can sympathise with his ongoing desire to save her.

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“It’s just a city. You’ll get used to watching them fall.”

The side characters don’t get quite as much screen time here as they did on the solo shows, which is to be expected, but they’re still fun to watch. Claire is as perfect and amazing as ever, and this series truly shows how important she is to all four heroes. Foggy, Karen, Trish, Malcolm, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing and Father Lantom all get at least a moment or two to shine. But if you’re expecting a Punisher cameo, as I was, you’ll be disappointed.

The fight scenes in this season are almost Daredevil-quality. None of them blew me away quite as much as the best fights on that show, but they’re all exciting and well-choreographed, especially the Defenders’ first hallway fight. (I like how hallway fights have become the Marvel/Netflix trademark.) The cinematography is pretty cool and striking in general. Each of the Defenders has a colour associated with them on this show (red for Daredevil, blue for Jessica Jones, yellow for Luke Cage, and green for Iron Fist), and that colour is always prominently featured in their solo scenes. Scenes with all four of them together generally have all four colours on display. Meanwhile, scenes with their enemies are predominantly black and white. Doesn’t really affect the story much, but I thought it was a nice cinematic touch.

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That moment when you’re the only superhero on your team who actually wears a costume.

 

One of the biggest problems with the non-Daredevil solo series was their slow pacing, so it was probably a wise decision to cut this show down to just eight episodes. The story certainly never drags the way it did in Luke Cage and Iron Fist, but I can’t help feeling it could have been a lot more epic if it was longer. Maybe that’s just me being an unpleasable fan, but both seasons of Daredevil managed to keep things interesting for 13 episodes, so it seems there must be a way to strike a balance between “too slow” and “too short.”

One more little quibble: There is a massive fake-out death at the end of this show. I don’t think it’s even a spoiler to call it a fake-out, since it’s one of those Marvel deaths that no one at all familiar with the franchise would ever expect to stick. But the show still wastes a pretty good amount of time trying to convince the audience it’s real, and that annoyed me. To be fair, though, it would have annoyed me more if it had been real.

The Marvel/Netflix partnership still hasn’t produced anything else as good as Daredevil, but this series comes pretty close. The love and respect I have for most of the characters, especially Daredevil, is enough to overshadow its few flaws. I’m very much looking forward to future team-ups and solo series in the gritty corner of the Marvel Universe.

Now, if you’ll allow me a moment of fangirling, I would like to point out the best moments of this show: the part where Matt Murdock played his own theme song on the piano (badly) and it was absolutely adorable, and the part where he encouraged another disabled person to keep fighting and my heart melted into goo. Okay. Fangirling over.

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HE IS TOO GOOD FOR THIS WORLD.

The Defenders is excellent Netflix binge material, and I highly recommend it to all Marvel fans.

Grade: A-