Iron Man 3

The exciting conclusion to the Iron Man trilogy!

…Which is mostly just Tony Stark on a road trip in his sweatpants.

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Iron Man 3
Director: Shane Black
Writers: Shane Black and Drew Pearce
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr.
Music By: Brian Tyler
Released: 2013

The events of The Avengers–specifically, his own close brush with death-by-wormhole–have left their mark on Tony Stark. He can’t sleep, he’s having anxiety attacks, and he’s coping in his usual healthy way: by ignoring his longsuffering girlfriend and spending way too much time doing dangerous things with metal suits. The hero business comes calling again, though, when an attack by a terrorist known as the Mandarin hits a little too close to home. Tony goes on a quest for vengeance, with a side of protecting Pepper Potts, but it turns out the real reward is the friends he makes along the way.

Out of all the Marvel movies so far, this is the one that improved the most for me on the re-watch. I remember being massively disappointed by it when it first came out, but in hindsight, I think that was mainly due to false advertising. The trailers made me think I’d be getting a dark, intense action thriller with a creepy terrorist as the villain. So when I instead got an introspective road trip comedy about Tony fighting his inner demons (again), it felt like a let-down. Watching it again, though, I found a lot to love.

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Just bros bein’ bros.

First of all, once I came to terms with the fact that it’s meant to be a comedy, I had to admit it’s a pretty good one. It’s got a ton of great one-liners and memorable quips (“It’s a giant bunny, relax about it!” “Well, I panicked, but then I handled it;” “I just stole a poncho from a wooden Indian;” etc.). It also has my favourite evil henchman moment in any movie ever: There’s a scene about a third of the way through where Tony blasts a few goons in the baddie’s lair, and the remaining one throws his hands up and says, “Honestly, I hate working here. They are so weird.” And Tony lets him go. I need more evil henchmen like that one in my life.

It also has some heartwarming moments that show real growth for Tony, especially in his relationships with the two loves of his life: Pepper and the suits. Sure, Pepper is still kind of a useless damsel in distress, which is unfortunate, but at least in this movie, Tony learns to put her interests ahead of his own once in a while. He also learns that he can still be a hero even without his tech. (In theory, anyway; in practice, he’ll still need the suits for every single superhero adventure in the MCU.) It’s not a lot of growth, but it sure beats re-hashing the same lessons he learned in the first movie, like Iron Man 2 did.

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He should probably get a different therapist, though.

And although this movie is fairly light on action as superhero movies go, it manages to have a pretty spectacular climax that showcases the power and variety of Stark tech better than any previous film. It also lets Rhodey get a few good scenes in. Even Pepper gets to do a few cool things…okay, maybe one.

Of course, none  of that changes the fact that it’s heavily weighed down by its villain. Normally a bland Marvel villain would be nothing to write home about, but in this case, the movie spends over half its runtime trying to convince us the villain was going to be really intimidating for once. But then there’s a twist that reveals…nope, he’s just another cartoon who wants to take over the world for vague reasons. The twist is funny in its execution, but harmful in its effects…especially for fans of the comics, where the Mandarin was an iconic nemesis for Iron Man, albeit one with troublingly racist overtones.

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“You’llll neverrrr seeeee me coming.”

Something I notice about a lot of Phase 2 Marvel movies is that they have a feeling of being held back. There’s an outline of a great, original idea, but it’s diminished somehow, twisted to fit into the same formula that Phase 1 followed. In this movie, I think it would have been fantastic if the Mandarin really was the creepy terrorist with a vendetta against the U.S. that he appeared to be in the beginning. It would have given the story a chance to do some real political commentary, which would have been a first for Marvel at the time. It also would have been nice to delve deeper into Tony’s struggles with wormhole-related PTSD. It’s portrayed well enough in the first part of the movie, but it doesn’t have much real impact on the plot, and it’s “solved” in a pretty glib way at the end. It’s like the filmmakers (or the studio behind them) were too squeamish to tackle anything that felt too much like a real-world problem.

Still, Robert Downey Jr. continues to be awesome in this movie, and this time he’s backed up by a fair number of good side characters. In addition to Rhodey, there’s also the inventor kid with whom he forms a “connection,” and as unfortunate as the twist is, it allows one of the villains to become quite…memorable for comedy reasons. JARVIS also feels more like a real character in this movie than he ever did before, trading snark with Tony like a pro and even going through a bit of an arc himself.

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“Sir, I think I need to sleep now…”

Overall, Iron Man 3 is a good movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I just don’t think it’s quite as good as it could have been. Maybe if it was made just a little later in Marvel’s development, it could have made my top five or six films in the franchise. But as it is, I’ll have to rank it below the first movie, as well as quite a few others.

  1. The Avengers
  2. Captain America: The First Avenger
  3. Thor
  4. Iron Man
  5. Iron Man 3
  6. Iron Man 2
  7. The Incredible Hulk

Marvel TV

Starting in Phase 2, Marvel Studios started to branch out from the big screen and add a few TV shows to their Cinematic Universe. Now there are quite a few of them out there, with five new ones rolling out just last year.  I’m not going to do a full review for all the Marvel TV shows, firstly because that’s too large a time commitment even for me, and secondly because there are quite a few I haven’t seen. They’re spread out across so many different streaming platforms that it would cost me something like $50 a month just to get access to them all. Right now, my budget pretty much limits me to what’s on Netflix.

However, I would like to say a few words about the shows I have seen. Overall, they’re much less consistent than the movie universe, ranging in quality from terrible to absolute masterpieces. They also range widely in terms of how closely they follow the movies’ timeline. Some of the shows, particularly Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., are profoundly affected by the events of the movies, while others, like The Punisher, seem to have little to no connection with the rest of the MCU. Unfortunately, all of them have been completely ignored by the movies so far, so I can’t say any one of them is a “must-see” in order to understand the MCU. A few, though, are must-sees for other reasons.

Here they are, ranked from worst to best:

7. Iron Fist

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Yeah, I’m not a fan of this one. Mainly because it’s a martial arts show in which the main character clearly does not know martial arts, and all the fights are lame. Also, the main character’s origin story involves punching a dragon, yet we never see so much as a glimpse of said dragon onscreen. The way I see it, if a dragon is involved in your story in any way, you are duty-bound to portray that dragon onscreen. Some stuff in the show is well done–I particularly enjoyed the Meacham family drama–but it tended to be stuff that didn’t have anything to do with Danny Rand (the Immortal Iron Fist, Protector of K’un-L’un, Sworn Enemy of the Hand), or his main plot. For my full thoughts, see my review.

6. The Defenders

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This was the show that brought all of the Marvel/Netflix heroes together, and I think it should have been a lot better than it was. Not that it was terrible, but I found it poorly paced (like most of the Netflix shows), and without a big enough threat to justify such a team-up. It was a lot of fun to see all four heroes getting together, though, and coming right off the huge disappointment that was Iron Fist, I was willing to give it a bit of a pass. Again, see my review for more.

5. Luke Cage

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This show offers a compelling, six-episode miniseries about a very likable hero going up against a couple of menacing, but somewhat sympathetic villains in order to protect the neighborhood he loves. Unfortunately, it lasts for 13 episodes. Along the way, the interesting villains get replaced by an annoying cartoon and way, way too much time is spent on trivial subplots and dull conversations. But at least it’s got some great music. More details in my review.

4. Jessica Jones

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Here’s one I’ve never gotten a chance to review before. I haven’t seen Season 2 yet, but Season 1 is a well-written, wonderfully acted story about a bitter, alcoholic private eye with super strength trying to bring down the psycho who ruined her life before he ruins more lives. It’s full of great characters, good action, and solid commentary on real-life issues that never devolves into preachiness. But it’s also…just so darn depressing. Part of that is a pacing issue. In order to fill out 13 hours of runtime, the show has to keep coming up with ways for the villain, Killgrave, to stay ahead of the heroes until the end. And because he’s by far the most irredeemably evil villain in the MCU, and one of the most powerful, that means most of the show ends up being about him doing terrible things to people. That gets old after a while. Also, like with Luke Cage, the show spends a little more time than I’d like on irrelevant subplots. Still, it’s hard not to enjoy Krysten Ritter’s brilliant performance as the lead character, and her sarcasm and gallows humour does lighten the mood a bit. And David Tennant is, if anything, a little too good in his role as the villain. I plan to do a proper review of Season 2 once I get a chance to watch it.

3. The Punisher

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Like most of the other Netflix shows, this one suffers from unnecessarily slow pacing and too many subplots. But it’s also a thoughtful look into the mind of a man broken by war and violence, and a rare revenge story that doesn’t glorify vengeance for its own sake. The acting is stellar and the action is brutal. I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of it, but I found watching it to be a surprisingly emotional and thought-provoking experience. See my review for more.

2. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

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Out of the ones I’ve seen, this is the Marvel show with the strongest connection to the movie universe. Starting just after the events of The Avengers, it follows the adventures of Agent Phil Coulson (yes, he’s alive) and a crack team of SHIELD agents as they seek to protect the human race against superpowered threats and shut down rival organizations like Hydra. It got off to a slow start, but its quality went up like a rocket halfway through Season 1, after the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and hasn’t really come down since. It’s just a very fun show, full of spy-vs.-spy intrigue, heartfelt character growth, and some quite decent superhero action. I’m not a huge fan of Skye (her actress is usually less than impressive), but all the other characters on the team are great, particularly Fitzsimmons and Coulson himself. You gotta love a show where a middle-aged dad figure with a receding hairline gets to be a super-cool secret agent. And with the problems that have plagued the Netflix shows lately, you have to love a show that can keep things fast-paced and interesting for 22 episodes per season. I think there’s a reason this is the longest-lasting Marvel show so far.

1. Daredevil

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I’ll be honest: I mostly started this list so I could talk about this show. Until very recently, Daredevil was my favourite product of the MCU, period. Part of my problem with the other Netflix shows is that I’m constantly tempted to compare them with this one, which came first and has yet to be equaled in sheer awesomeness. Its fight scenes are some of the most intense, well-choreographed, and brutally realistic that I’ve come across in any medium. Its dialogue is just as intense and high-stakes as the action, with hardly a single throwaway line that doesn’t reveal something vital to a character or a piece of the plot. The acting is incredible across the board, but Charlie Cox as the lead, Vincent D’Onofrio as Wilson Fisk, and Jon Bernthal in his debut as the Punisher still manage to stand out from the pack. But the show’s true strength is in its characters. Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, is my favourite Marvel superhero because he’s the most complicated. A lawyer by day, vigilante by night, and Catholic all the time, he constantly struggles with the morality of what he’s doing, trying to fight off his own darker impulses even as he fights the many natural and supernatural baddies that threaten Hell’s Kitchen. The show also makes the bold choice of giving some of its villains the same amount of character development as the hero, showing that even the most villainous of people can have some virtues, too. Even side characters like Foggy Nelson and Karen Page have a lot of layers to them, and go through some major changes over the course of the series. Granted, the show’s quality took a bit of a dip in Season 2, mostly thanks to an annoying love triangle, but I’m still happy to rewatch it whenever I get a chance. Here’s hoping Season 3 will keep the good times going instead of following the other Netflix shows’ downward trend.

And yes, if I ever get a chance to watch Agent Carter, Inhumans, Runaways, or Cloak and Dagger, I’ll be sure to review them. But for now, these are my rankings for Marvel TV.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Daredevil yet, go watch it now.

The Avengers

The movies that make up Phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, by themselves, might not have been all that special to me. I enjoy most of them, but even when they were first coming out, I wouldn’t have listed any of them in my top three favourite superhero movies, and with the way the superhero industry has exploded since 2008, I certainly wouldn’t now. They’re all entertaining romps with a little bit of heart, and…that’s pretty much it.

This is the movie that made them special.

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The Avengers
Director and Writer: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson
Music By: Alan Silvestri
Released: 2012

(This is also the point at which it becomes impossible to talk about MCU movies without spoiling some things about their predecessors, so…spoiler warning if you’re not caught up.)

After an ominous monologue from one alien to another unseen alien, we open with the Tesseract, a powerful object retrieved by SHIELD in Captain America: The First Avenger, creating a portal in an underground base. Out pops Loki, looking a bit the worse for wear after falling to his presumed death in Thor, but carrying a staff that allows him to mind-control a couple of scientists and SHIELD agents. They help him destroy the base and escape, and given that Loki’s first act on Earth was to announce his plans to conquer it, Director Fury figures now would be a good time to assemble the super-team he’s been hinting at for the last few movies. They’ve all got very different personalities, some are adjusting to major culture shock, some are harbouring dangerous secrets, and some just plain don’t get along, but it’s up to this new team of heroes–Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye–to stop Loki’s plans and save the world. Or, failing that, to avenge it.

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“Let’s do a headcount here: Your brother, the demigod; a super-soldier, a living legend who kinda lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins…”

I think it would be hard to overstate how much of a milestone The Avengers is, both for the MCU and for superhero movies in general. It was the first major crossover in superhero movies. There had been a few team movies before this, but they usually followed groups of close-knit heroes who were all introduced at the same time, like the X-Men. The Avengers was different: five out of its seven team members had already been established in their own movies (even multiple movies, in Iron Man’s case), and their big team-up would not just be a crowd-pleasing crossover, but a major in-univere event that would advance all their stories. Not being a comic reader at the time the movie came out, I remember being sceptical. Could a hero whose origin was completely based in magic and otherworldly realms, like Thor, work on the same team as a technology-based hero like Iron Man? How could an old-fashioned World War II hero like Captain America work with a high-tech spy agency like Nick Fury’s SHIELD? How would there be time to develop all the characters, including some who hadn’t gotten their own origin stories yet, and still have a comprehensible plot?

Nowadays, with the much-hyped Infinity War advertising a cast of something like 25 different super-people, my doubts seem silly. But I think it’s worth pointing out that, even today, no non-Marvel studio has yet managed to put out a super-team movie as successful as The Avengers.

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It helps that Marvel picked the right man for the job. Joss Whedon has his weaknesses as a creator (which we’ll probably get into more when I review Age of Ultron), but he generally excels at two things: putting together an effective ensemble cast from characters with wildly different personalities, and writing insanely quotable dialogue.

Both strengths serve him well in this movie. It’s got a disproportionate number of the most iconic lines in the MCU, for starters. “I understood that reference;” “Genius billionaire playboy philanthropist;” “We have a Hulk;” “That’s my secret, Cap: I’m always angry;” etc….they’ve all become deeply ingrained in the vocabulary of even casual Marvel fans. It helps that the actors’ delivery is invariably excellent, but the dialogue as written is basically a perfect storm of Iron Man’s snappiest witticisms, the Shakespearean flavour of Asgard and Cap’s 1940s slang. Both the heroes and villains in this movie are excellent talkers.

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“Big man in a suit of armour; take that away, what are you?”

As a results, the best parts are the scenes where all the different heroes are chilling on the helicarrier, just getting to know each other. It’s fun to see Tony Stark and Bruce Banner bond over mad science, Agent Coulson’s fangirl moments over Captain America, and the newly-introduced bond between Black Widow and Hawkeye. And of course, the epic rivalry between Iron Man and Captain America, which is really at the heart of all the Avengers team-up movies, gets its start here. It makes a lot of sense: an irreverent playboy who’s constantly upgrading his technology and likes the fame and fortune that come with superheroing would naturally butt heads with old-fashioned Steve Rogers, who isn’t used to computers yet and still thinks like a soldier. Their conflict will eventually lead to serious trouble for the team, but in this movie it just leads to growth for both of them. Tony learns the value of self-sacrifice and gets over some of his lingering pride. Steve begins to learn he can’t always trust the people giving him orders. They form an unlikely (and uneasy) friendship that will shape much of the MCU from here on out.

Of course, the action scenes are fun, too–particularly the climax in New York City. Although it would be overshadowed by later films, that sequence is still a fantastic example of teamwork on display in a fight scene.

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Even if they end up punching each other off-screen occasionally.

I do have a few complaints about the movie. One is that it downgrades Loki from a clever schemer with complicated motives to a moustache-twirling cartoon villain. Tom Hiddleston’s performance is still fun to watch, but he’s not nearly as interesting here as he was in Thor. And the Chitauri invasion, while perfectly fine when this movie came out, feels generic now that so many other comic book movies have centred on heroes battling faceless armies of disposable freaks for the big finale.

It’s also a shame that Hawkeye spends most of this movie brainwashed, because I feel he got the short end of the stick when it comes to characterisation for the Avengers. We don’t really learn anything about him in this movie, other than the tiniest glimpse of his history with Black Widow and the fact that he has a dry sense of humour. Combine that with his total lack of superpowers, and he doesn’t really seem like he deserves to be playing on the same team as, say, Thor.

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But I bet he can eat as much shawarma as the best of them.

Overall, though, I still love this movie, and it’s definitely the crown jewel of Phase 1.

  1. The Avengers
  2. Thor
  3. Captain America: The First Avenger
  4. Iron Man
  5. Iron Man 2
  6. The Incredible Hulk

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.


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-


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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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-


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

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

Grade: A-