Iron Man

So I’ve got a little project I’m working on over the next few months. With The Avengers: Infinity War coming out soon, I’ve decided to go back and review all the movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (apart from the ones I’ve already reviewed, of course), and finish by putting them all in a definitive ranking. Some of the movies I haven’t seen in ages, and some I’ve managed to skip altogether, so this will be a way for me to get caught up in time for the big sorta-finale.

Let’s get started!

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Iron Man
Director: Jon Favreau
Writers: Marc Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway (wow, this really didn’t feel like a four-writer movie)
Starring: Robert Downey, Jr.
Music By: Ramin Djawadi
Released: 2008

This is the one that started it all: not just the MCU, but the very idea of a cinematic universe as we know it today. It changed the way we think about superhero movies and the way we watch the end credits. And it arguably completed the process that began in the early 2000s of changing superhero movies in the public consciousness from cheesy, campy flicks for kids to serious blockbuster material for all ages.

In case you’ve gone as long as I had without watching it, here’s a refresher on the plot: Tony Stark is a billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist…but he’s also a massive jerk, until he gets a piece of shrapnel in his heart just before getting kidnapped by terrorists in Afghanistan. There he finds out that many of the hugely destructive weapons he’s been creating for the U.S. military have been ending up in the hands of their enemies. In order to escape his captors, he builds a mini mech suit with flamethrowers and jetpacks, with the help of this movie’s model of the guy-who-exists-to-die-inspirationally. Once Tony gets home, to atone for his past sins and honour that guy’s death,  he decides to use his new Iron Man suit for good–after giving it a cooler paint job, of course.

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“Throw a little hot-rod red on there.”

I remember loving this movie when it first came out. 2008 was one of the crappier years of my life, and a movie like Iron Man provided just the escapism I needed, even if some of its jokes went over my head (for example, my sheltered teenage self had never heard Black Sabbath, so the little musical gag at the end was lost on me). It was cool, exciting, and funny, and it was just grounded enough not to feel like a kids’ movie (a very important consideration for teenage me).

Revisiting it now, I’m a lot more aware of its flaws, especially since a lot of them became recurring problems within the MCU. The villain is enjoyably hammy, but he’s still pretty generic, and he doesn’t have a strong motive. Product placement has to rear its ugly head a few times, although it’s nowhere near as blatant as it sometimes got in later Marvel films. Also, as much fun as the Iron Man action is, it doesn’t build to a very interesting climax–just a brief punch-out, with a couple screaming civilians in the way. Really, for a superhero movie, Iron Man doesn’t have a ton of great action. It’s always fun when Iron Man gets to just fly around in his suit or blow stuff up, but he doesn’t have any good fights with other people–mainly because he always outguns them all so easily. It would take later, higher-tech movies to really give him a challenge.

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I mean, the tanks sure weren’t doing it.

But even after noticing all this on the re-watch, I still thoroughly enjoyed Iron Man. And I think I have to give most of the credit for that to one man: Robert Downey, Jr. He carries the whole movie on his back and doesn’t seem to notice the weight. His rapid-fire witticisms in the “fun-vee” are what pull me into the movie, and his performance keeps me there until the last deadpan look at the camera. He makes Tony Stark’s two-hour journey from unrepentant jerk, to repentant jerk, to full-blown hero, completely believable without ever letting up on the jokes.

And that’s a really, really good thing, because when you come right down to it, Iron Man is a lot more about Tony’s character development than anything else. The plot is fairly thin, the action isn’t amazing, but the heart of the story is about a bad man finding a way to redeem himself, and that part works just fine.

I’ve read that when Stan Lee created Iron Man back in the ’60s, he was trying to invent the exact kind of character his young, hip, comic-book-reading audience would automatically hate–and make them love him anyway. So he wrote Tony Stark as a selfish billionaire who profits off war in other countries. When it came time to make a movie about this guy almost 50 years later, his personality didn’t change much, because that’s still the kind of person a lot of young nerds love to hate.

And why wouldn’t we? Tony Stark is the living embodiment of everything wrong with Western culture. He’s materialistic. He’s a hedonist. He’s arrogant. He reaps the benefits of violence and suffering that he never has to see up close, and he’s actually proud of that. But the great thing about this movie is that it makes me believe someone like that can change. Tony genuinely sees the error of his ways, and he uses that remorse to do something better with his life. After being humbled and losing some of his illusions about the world, he manages to use his talents to make that world a better place–to protect the innocents his technology once harmed.

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And he did it in a CAVE! With a BOX OF SCRAPS!

And if a man like Tony Stark can change, then maybe I and my whole screwed-up culture can change, too. That’s where this movie’s true escapism comes in: it gives me a bit of hope for my stupid society.

The story of an arrogant jerk being humbled would eventually become a Marvel origin story staple, but I still think this movie did it best. And with the benefit of hindsight, knowing all the great stories this guy would eventually make possible…it just gets even better.

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“For your consideration…the Marvel Universe.”

Instead of grades for these movies, I’m just going to list my ranking for them so far. Since Iron Man is the first, it’s obviously number one…for now.

  1. Iron Man

Black Panther

Eighteen movies into its cinematic universe, Marvel Studios has finally released its first film about a non-white superhero, and the internet hype is through the roof. Weeks before this movie came out, critics were already calling it the best and most important entry in the MCU. Lots of people (African-Americans especially) have been treating it like a major cultural milestone since the first trailer. Now that it actually is out, it’s one of the best-reviewed superhero movies ever on sites like Rotten Tomatoes.

It would be tough for almost any movie to live up to that level of hype. But this one comes…pretty close.

(Spoilers for Captain America: Civil War follow.)

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Black Panther
Director: Ryan Coogler
Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole
Starring: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, etc.
Music By: Ludwig Goransson
Rated PG-13

After the death of his father in Civil War, T’Challa, aka Black Panther, returns home to be crowned king of Wakanda, an African nation as technologically advanced as it is hidden from the outside world. Wakanda’s wealth and power is built on vibranium, an incredibly powerful metal popular with superheroes throughout the Marvel universe, and T’Challa knows the rest of the world would do just about anything to get it. While he’s struggling to decide whether to follow his ancestors’ policy of isolation or share his country’s wealth, he learns that an infamous weapons dealer named Ulysses Klaue is trying to reveal Wakanda’s secret. But not only does the new king have to track Klaue down, he also has to deal with a challenger to the throne: an American-born soldier of Wakandan descent, known as Killmonger. True to his name, he’s got some rather more violent ideas about how to use the power of vibranium.

Let’s get this out of the way right now: if you go into this movie expecting it to be a revolutionary masterpiece that will change the superhero genre forever, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed. But if you go in expecting another great Marvel movie, you’ll get exactly what you paid for. I think most of the negative reactions this movie is getting (and there are some for sure) are due to the overhyped advertising more than any actual flaws.

Personally, I loved almost everything about it, starting with the setting. Wakanda is gorgeous. The costumes, the landscapes, the technology…it’s all a brilliant, colourful blend of traditional African and sci-fi designs. The Marvel movies have given us plenty of cool gadgets before, but this movie has magnetically-propelled trains, vibranium suits that store kinetic energy, and beads that can create holograms and heal wounds.

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Fighting evil has never looked so stylish.

Oh, and battle rhinos. ‘Cause what advanced warrior nation doesn’t need battle rhinos?

And it’s an imaginary country that almost feels as if it could really exist somewhere. We learn enough about Wakandan mythology, culture, and tradition in this movie to make me feel like it has a real history. (In a way, I guess it does, since Black Panther has existed in comics for more than 50 years.) In many ways, Wakanda is a utopia. It’s an African nation that has never been affected by colonialism, slavery, or any of the other crap the rest of the continent and the world has had to deal with. It’s got sustainable energy and gadgets that can heal crippling wounds overnight. Women are on 100 percent equal footing with men, and they don’t have to hide their femininity in order to achieve that. Plus, everyone gets stylish outfits, and have I mentioned the rhinos? Who wouldn’t want to live in Wakanda?

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It’s got hovercars AND waterfalls. 

But as this movie eventually shows, the nation isn’t perfect. Its rulers have hoarded their technology for centuries, leaving less fortunate people around the world to be oppressed and exploited. Even some of the tribes within Wakanda get left out when it comes to tech. T’Challa’s main internal conflict centres on whether—and how—his country should help the people outside its borders.

That’s where his opposition comes in. I think it’s safe to say, at this point, that Marvel has overcome its villain problem. Killmonger is the latest in a rather long stretch of good-to-great MCU villains, and he just might be the best of them all. He’s one of the few whose motives are not just understandable, but downright sympathetic. Raised in America, he’s experienced racism and internalised the history of slavery his whole life, while being told stories about the fairyland of Wakanda. He wants justice for some genuinely wrong things that were done to his family, and he wants more kids like him to have a chance to live in a place like Wakanda.  They’re not inherently bad goals, nor are they all that different from what T’Challa wants for his people. The only problem is, Killmonger’s methods involve a lot of, well, killing. But Michael B. Jordan’s magnetic performance, combined with some very well-written dialogue, make it easy to understand where he’s coming from without making him less evil.

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“Burn it all!”

Utiimately, though, T’Challa has to find his own way to help the outside world without becoming a conqueror. And his supporting cast ends up being a pretty big part of that. They each bring their own perspective on what it means to be a good ruler and a good person, and they are all awesome. General Okoye, leader of all-female bodyguard troop the Dora Milaje, could give Wonder Woman a run for her money in the fierce female warrior department. Nakia, Black Panther’s spy girlfriend, provides a voice of reason and compassion throughout the movie. His little sister Shuri is equal parts genius inventor and annoying teenager—a girl after Tony Stark’s own heart. Tribal leader M’Baku provides great comic relief, and Martin Freeman does what he does best (i.e., plays a normal guy caught up in an adventure who eventually reveals his true heroic colours). The only problem I have with this movie’s supporting cast is that they’re so good they sometimes overshadow T’Challa in his own movie.

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Seriously, though. This movie has the highest concentration of good female characters in any MCU movie so far.

But I’m not going to pretend the movie is completely without flaws. One that really upset me was the tragic under-use of Andy Serkis as Klaue. He’s crazy, over-the-top, and a ton of fun in every scene, so much so that he even stands out next to a great villain like Killmonger. And yet he doesn’t ultimately get to do much in this movie. I think that’s a shame. Then again, I think just about every movie could use a bit more Andy Serkis.

Black Panther’s other problems are mainly just flaws by comparison. With the exception of one truly cool fight in South Korea towards the beginning, most of the action is pretty underwhelming compared to other entries in the MCU. Same goes for some of the CGI. The plot is also pretty predictable, at least for anyone familiar with superheroes (or maybe The Lion King).

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But for me, those problems aren’t enough to distract from Black Panther‘s great characters and heartfelt message. This is the rare superhero story that can confront real-world issues without ever feeling preachy or in poor taste. I can definitely see why it resonates with so many black people, but I think it also has something to say to people in general, especially Americans. Beyond all the political debates about isolationism and empire-building, it shows its heroes moving on from tragedy, sticking to their principles, refusing to repeat the mistakes of previous generations, and ultimately choosing to “build bridges” to other communities, rather than shutting them out. I think those are ideals we can all aspire to reach.

Wakanda Forever!

Grade: A


I love urban fantasy. I mean, I love fantasy in general, but there’s something especially fun about throwing the monsters and magic of a fairytale into a normal 21st-century environment and watching how regular people handle them. It’s a genre that hasn’t gotten as much mainstream attention as I think it deserves, so I was rather pleased when I saw the Netflix advertisements for this film.

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Director: David Ayer
Writer: Max Landis
Starring: Will Smith and Joel Edgerton
Music by: David Sardy
Rated TV-MA

The story takes place in an alternate version of modern Los Angeles that is mainly populated by three species: elves, humans, and orcs, listed in order of their social standing. Daryl Ward is a human cop who is reluctantly partnered with Nick Jakoby, the only orc officer on the force. When the movie begins, Ward is returning to work after recovering from being shot, and he’s a wee bit upset with his partner for letting the culprit (another orc) get away. But the pair soon have bigger problems to worry about after they stumble across a magic wand–a powerful weapon that can only be wielded by someone born with magical abilities, called a Bright. Hunted by a corrupt police force, power-hungry gangsters, and an evil elvish cult, Ward and Jakoby have to keep the wand out of the wrong hands while protecting the runaway elf who guards it.

Despite its fantastical trappings, this movie is filmed very much like a gritty cop drama, complete with boatloads of profanity, several bloody shoot-outs, and some utterly gratuitous shots in a strip club. Personally, I could have done with a lot less grit, but there are times when the “urban” and “fantasy” sides of the equation complement each other quite well. It’s clear the filmmakers put a lot of work into creating their world, a version of modern America where fantasy creatures have always existed alongside humans. Elves and orcs even get their own languages, and there are references to what sounds like a fascinating alternate world history. This movie introduces so many interesting ideas, in fact, that I almost feel it would work better as a TV series. Two hours just isn’t enough time to fully explore the concept on which it’s built (although a sequel does appear to be in the works).

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I need to know more about how elves got so scary.

Also, Bright has some…problems. Some of the attempts at humour are cringeworthy (“Fairy lives don’t matter today!”), and some of the musical choices are even more cringeworthy. Ward is such a jerk for most of the movie that it can be hard to sympathise with him. And I found a few plot developments towards the end to be extremely predictable.

Still, taking one thing with another, I’d say there’s more good about this movie than bad. Even if it does feel like it would be better suited to a show, the sheer amount of worldbuilding here is impressive for a stand-alone movie, and it’s even accomplished without too much awkward exposition. The relationship between the two cops, as they start to overcome their distrust and prejudice, and eventually form a kind of friendship, is very believable and leads to some heartwarming moments. That’s largely thanks to the acting skills of Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, who play off each other excellently. Also, I found Jakoby to be a very endearing character in general. As an orc who’s seen as a traitor by his own race and a monster by humans, he’s clearly had a lot of crap thrown his way throughout his life, but he’s still an optimist who just wants to make the world a better place for humans and orcs alike. He more than makes up for his partner’s jerkishness.

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He’s just a big ol’ sweetheart.

Obviously, the fantastic race relations in this movie are meant to mirror real-world ones. Elves are the privileged elite, with all the nice clothes and cars and control over the government. They’ve even got police checkpoints outside their gated communities to keep out the riffraff. Orcs are the oppressed minority group, brutalised by police and feared by civilians, often turning to a life of crime because it’s their only option. It’s not subtle, and it hits many of the same beats Zootopia did a couple years ago. Still, in this day and age, it’s hard to dislike a heartfelt story about two people from very different cultures working together and finding common ground. “Don’t hate people just because they’re different” may not exactly be a revolutionary message to see in a movie, but it’s still a worthy one, and the friendship that forms the heart of this film makes it seem all the more sincere.

Bright definitely won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.  If you don’t like urban fantasy and/or aren’t familiar with it, the cop drama/fairytale mash-up could come across as too weird or silly to stomach. As a fan of urban fantasy, but not such a big fan of cop dramas, I found some of the violence (and the aforementioned gratuitous strip club scenes) rather off-putting. But in the end, the movie’s imaginative world and the relationship between the two central characters saved it for me. I enjoyed it quite a bit, despite its flaws.

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“We’re not in a prophecy, alright? We’re in a stolen Toyota Corolla.”

But as a fantasy fan, I’m still holding out for a good Netflix adaptation of The Dresden Files.

Grade: B-


My Favourite Movies of 2017

Dang, it’s 2018 already. And I was just getting used to 2017…

The past year was an excellent one for movies, whatever it may have been like in other areas. I think I spent more time at the movie theatre in 2017 than in any other single year of my life, so narrowing down my favourite movies of the year to just five was a bit difficult. Here are the winners. (Spoiler alert: there are a lot of superheroes.)

5. War for the Planet of the Apes

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I’m still not entirely sure what made this movie stand out to me so much. Maybe it was the stark simplicity of its story, or the epic soundtrack, or the endearing characters, or even the cute little girl. But I think most of the credit, in the end, has to go to Andy Serkis’s magnetic performance as Caesar. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He made a movie about an ape seeking revenge against a human seem like so much more than the sum of its parts. What an emotional and thought-provoking end to a great trilogy.

4. Logan

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Speaking of magnetic performances, some of the year’s best acting made it into this final Wolverine movie. (Although I’m sure Disney will find a way to make it  less final.) Exploring the limits of what a superhero movie can do seemed to be a theme for this year’s crop of comic book movies, and Logan started things off right with a bloody, Western-style tale of growing old and passing on a legacy. It’s one of the darkest superhero movies in recent memory, but it’s also one of the most hopeful, and I felt that perspective was needed this year.

3. Wonder Woman

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Okay. Objectively speaking, I’m fully aware that Wonder Woman is not one of the year’s best movies. It overuses slow motion to an annoying degree, it has a lame villain, and its dialogue is extremely cheesy, especially towards the climax. I’m aware of those flaws, but personally, I also don’t care tuppence about them. Seeing this movie for the first time in the theatre was one of the most uplifting cinematic experiences of my life. Finally, after years of being a superhero fan, I got to watch a fun, inspiring, courageous hero on the big screen who had the same number of X chromosomes as I do. It’s been kind of a tough year for me, and I needed that little boost of encouragement even more than I realised at the time. Also, it was nice to have at least one DCEU movie that doesn’t suck.

2. Thor: Ragnarok

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The more I think about this movie, the more I become convinced that it’s actually brilliant. Director Taika Waititi took a bleak, dismal story about the end of an era for one of Marvel’s signature heroes, and turned it into one of the year’s funniest and most colourful action movies. And the truly amazing thing is that he did it without making said “end of an era” seem any less important or awe-inspiring. Horrible things happen in this movie, yes, but the hero still chooses to look on the bright side, so why shouldn’t the audience? When it comes right down to it, I’d rather laugh at the end of the world than face it with a frown.

1. Blade Runner 2049

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I didn’t give this film my highest grade when it first came out because there were things in it that bothered me. And I’m still not a huge fan of Jared Leto’s performance, and I still think the nudity hurts the movie’s cause in many ways. But this movie made me think–hard–about why those aspects bothered me so much, while I found other aspects so powerful. It challenged my expectations and assumptions about sci-fi movies in general. Blade Runner 2049 stayed with me long after I left the theatre, and it kept drawing me back. It’s easily one of the most gorgeous films I’ve ever seen, but more importantly, it has some of the most imaginative and original (yes, even though it’s a sequel) storytelling I’ve ever seen. And the main theme of its story is so risky, so counter-cultural, that I don’t expect to see it in a mainstream blockbuster again in my lifetime. Blade Runner 2049 dares to tell its audience of middle-class, advertisement-saturated Westerners: “You’re not special. And that’s okay.” That’s just one layer, of course–there are enough complex themes in this movie to fill an entire film studies course–but it’s what I needed to hear at this point in my mid-20s life, and I don’t think I’m alone in that. Everything about this work, from the visuals to the music to the message, feels surprising and fresh to me, and I think it’s the 2017 movie that will stay with me the longest. “Beautiful, isn’t it?”

There are plenty of runners-up, of course: Dunkirk, The LEGO Batman Movie, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, etc., but these five movies were the ones that made me feel the most…hopeful. To me, that’s one of the best things a movie can do.

Of course, because of my limited budget and current living situation in Nowheresville, USA, I was only able to see this year’s biggest blockbusters in the theatre. During the next few months, I’m hoping to discover some of the more obscure, indie flicks that I missed in 2017. I’m also hoping to try a few new things with this blog. Hopefully some of them will be worth reading.

Here’s to another great year of wizarding and watching the clicks!



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-


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