The Punisher Season 1

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

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

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

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

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

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Brought to you by Disney.

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

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

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I wasn’t always THIS glued to the screen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HRUUUUUUUHHH!!!

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

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

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I ship it.

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

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

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

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“You scary, beautiful man!”

Grade: A-

 

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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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HE IS TOO GOOD FOR THIS WORLD.

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

Grade: A-

Spider-Man: Homecoming

There comes a time when every spider-boy must become a Spider-Man.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming
Director: Jon Watts
Writers: Jon Watts, Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, Christopher Ford, Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers 
Soundtrack composer: Michael Giacchino
Stars: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, etc.
Released: July 7
Rated PG-13

The movie starts immediately after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Peter Parker is extremely excited about meeting the Avengers and fighting alongside some of them, and considering Tony Stark specifically sought him out for the job, he assumes this is going to become a regular thing. But after two months, nobody has called him back for another mission, or even an Avengers costume party. So he goes on with his life: going to school, hanging out with his best friend Ned Leeds, and swinging around New York City in his new high-tech suit, attempting to stop crime as the “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” When he runs into a gang of thieves who have gotten their hands on alien tech, Stark tells him to let the experts handle it. But Peter has a little bit of teenage rebellion going on, and staying away from dangerous criminals isn’t really his style.

Like I said in my Civil War review, I thought Spider-Man was one of the most enjoyable things about that movie. But I was still a little wary about his solo outing, and not just because I spent a good nine months being bombarded with over-long trailers for it. (I don’t need to see half the movie beforehand in order to get excited for it, thank you very much!)

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I think I watched this scene a dozen times before the movie came out.

I’m a huge fan of the original Sam Raimi movies. Yes, all three of them. They were my first introduction, not just to Spider-Man as a character, but to superhero movies in general. So they have a huge nostalgia value to me, but they’re also just incredibly fun movies. To this day, I still haven’t seen many action scenes that can top the train fight in Spider-Man 2, and supervillains don’t get much better than Willem Dafoe as Green Goblin and Alfred Molina as Doc Ock. Also, J.K. Simmons is the only person who should ever be allowed to play J. Jonah Jameson. Even though Andrew Garfield arguably gave a better performance as the title character than his predecessor, I couldn’t stand the Amazing Spider-Man movies because they felt like unnecessary and inferior re-tellings of a story I already liked. So as we approached yet another re-boot, I tried not to get my hopes up too much, despite my usual love for the MCU.

My fears were (mostly) unfounded. This movie brings as much fun, humour, and excitement to its storytelling as I’ve come to expect from Marvel. And at no point does it feel like yet another re-telling of the story Raimi told so well 15 years ago. This movie wisely continues to assume that audiences already know all about Spider-Man’s origin story, so apart from a brief reference to the spider bite and some subtle hints that Aunt May is still mourning Uncle Ben, it doesn’t come up. Instead, we get to know this version of Peter Parker after he’s already decided to be a hero, and the story focuses on his journey to becoming a good one.

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First lesson: Make sure you’re alone BEFORE you take your mask off.

Because at first, he is reeaaallly bad at being Spider-Man. Turns out it takes more than superpowers and a high-tech suit to effectively defend New York City. It also helps to be able to tell when someone is stealing a car (as opposed to just getting into their own) and to know how to avoid unnecessary property damage. Spider-Man sure causes a lot of destruction for someone whose hero and mentor signed the Sokovia Accords to prevent that sort of thing. In fact, most of the big problems that arise throughout the movie are, directly or indirectly, his fault. Then again, he is only 15, and despite his inexperience, his heart is definitely in the right place. Over the course of the movie, he learns how to be a better fighter, even without the Stark gadgets, and finds a purpose for his powers beyond trying to prove he’s a grown-up Avenger.

Basically, this is your typical high school coming-of-age story…except it’s about Spider-Man. While there are plenty of action scenes, a good chunk of the movie is about Peter dealing with normal high school problems, like trying to win a big trivia competition or asking his crush out to the homecoming dance. Although high school movies aren’t normally my cup of tea, that aspect of the movie was actually my favourite. It allows us to see more of what life is like for normal people in the insane Marvel universe, and provides some great laughs along the way. For example, Peter’s school shows educational videos narrated by Captain America (apparently Cap even filmed a PSA about puberty, which is AMAZING). Peter’s friend Ned is also an excellent source of comic relief.

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“Can you summon an army of spiders?…Do you lay eggs?”

Before I get into my problems with the movie, I have to talk about the villain, Adrian Toomes, or Vulture. He’s the best MCU movie villain yet. That’s partly thanks to Michael Keaton’s excellent performance, and partly thanks to a very effective surprise twist concerning his character late in the movie, but it’s mostly because, out of all the villains in the franchise so far, Vulture is the most…human. He’s just a regular blue-collar worker who turned to dealing in illegal high-tech weaponry to provide a better life for his family, and he only goes after Spidey when he gets in the way. It’s such a refreshing change of pace from the usual “Let’s destroy the world because muahaha!” motivation of Marvel villains. This is the second decent villain they’ve had in a row, though, so maybe it’s a sign of permanent change.

Looking at this movie strictly on its own merits and in terms of its place in the MCU, there’s not a lot wrong with it. I could complain about the blatant product placement, or about how weird it is to see Spidey using high-tech gadgets and an AI, but those were minor issues that didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the film. It’s a fun, breezy adventure with good actors, decent action, and a clever, funny script.

But that’s all it is.

This movie is so much better than the Amazing Spider-Man movies that I’m hopeful it may cause them to fade out of public memory entirely. It has fewer problems than Spider-Man 3 had, by a long way. But in my opinion, it still falls short of the standards set by the Raimi trilogy as a whole. Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 may have had flaws, but they also had high moral stakes and a compelling arc for the hero. That version of Peter Parker had a motto–“With great power comes great responsibility”–and the whole trilogy, even the much-maligned third movie, was about his struggle to live up to that motto, despite various temptations to abuse his power or ignore his responsibility. Like all post-Raimi Spider-Man movies, Homecoming studiously avoids the “great responsibility” line for reasons that are unclear to me. And I miss it. This version of Peter Parker never wavers from his heroic intentions, which is great, but it also means his internal conflict is limited to trying to prove he’s a “grown-up” hero to Tony Stark, which is a comparatively weaker arc. The movie also misses an opportunity to show real consequences resulting from his inexperience (conveniently, no one we care about is ever hurt because of his mistakes) and have him learn a lesson about, well, responsibility. I was left wishing for more.

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But hey, at least he managed to get his mask off in the final fight.

Not every Spider-Man movie has to be an iconic superhero classic, though, and this movie isn’t trying to be one. It’s simply a light-hearted high school story with superheroes, and if that’s all you’re expecting when you walk into the theatre, you’ll probably be satisfied. Despite my nit-picking, I laughed my head off at all the jokes (especially the Captain America PSAs), and I still think Tom Holland makes a fantastic Spider-Man.

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Best. Cameo. Ever.

Oh, and the final stinger is totally worth waiting through the end credits. Your patience will be rewarded.

Grade: A-

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Time for some thrilling heroics–and great ’80s music!

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Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2
Writer and Director: James Gunn
Starring: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Pom Klementieff, etc., etc…
Released: May 5, 2017
Rated PG-13

Fair warning: The following review assumes that you have seen the first Guardians movie. If you haven’t, go and do so immediately.

After a brief flashback to show Peter Quill’s parents together back on Earth, this sequel begins a few months after the first movie left off. Our heroes are now famous for saving the galaxy, so of course they’re using their reputation to make money. They succeed in their latest mission–killing a tentacled space monster that was eating a precious resource on a planet called The Sovereign–but thanks to Rocket’s kleptomaniac tendencies, they still find themselves being pursued by a horde of angry starships. They’re saved in the nick of time by a mysterious figure…who turns out to be Peter’s long-lost father. Space dad says he’s been searching the galaxy for his son, but he’s not the only one on the group’s tail. Nebula’s still out for revenge on Gamora after the events of the last movie. The Sovereign, good at holding grudges, hire Star-Lord’s old band of Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians. Yondu, captain of said Ravagers, has his hands full with mutinous crew members and his own mixed feelings about the Terran kid he raised. And in the midst of the ensuing hijinks, it becomes clear that the galaxy needs saving again.

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Who you gonna call?

 

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favourite parts of the MCU, which is saying something. The first movie took an obscure comic that featured a talking tree, and turned it into the rebellious love child of Star Wars and Firefly, with a soundtrack truly deserving of the name “Awesome Mix Vol. 1.” It made me smile a lot. And most of the other Marvel movies that have been released between 2014 and now haven’t been half bad, either. So this sequel had a lot to live up to.

It did not disappoint.

This movie has everything that made me love the original: humour, memorable characters, crazy action, and dancing. But it also ups the ante in a lot of ways, raising the emotional stakes for all the heroes and giving many of them some much-appreciated character development. Baby Groot is adorable, which is no surprise to anyone who saw the trailers. There are lots of laughs, some truly epic action scenes, and a surprisingly emotional climax. Everything feels bigger and brighter than the last time around.

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Except for Groot. He’s smaller.

But before I get into what I really loved about the movie, let me get my few complaints out of the way. As is the nature of sequels, this one doesn’t feel quite as fresh and original as, well, the original. Yes, we have reached a point in pop culture where the sheer novelty of seeing a raccoon and a talking tree save the galaxy in a big summer blockbuster has worn off a bit. What a time to be alive. I also didn’t find this movie quite as funny as the first one–not because there were fewer jokes, but because more of the jokes were a little on the raunchy side, and to me, raunch is not especially funny. Drax would probably say I have “hang-ups,” but whatever. Even if you like that sort of thing, a few of the earlier jokes seem to be reaching a bit. Finally, this movie has FIVE stingers in the end credits, which seems excessive, even by Marvel standards. And some of them didn’t make a lot of sense to me because I know nothing about the original Guardians of the Galaxy comics.

But Vol. 2 has one very important thing that its predecessor, and most of the other Marvel movies so far, lacked: a good villain. Marvel finally did it! They created a villain whose motive makes sense, who poses a genuine threat to our heroes and their universe, who the audience comes to hate for very good reasons, but who is also kind of fun to watch. And I think it’s largely because of the villain that I found this movie even more emotionally satisfying than its predecessor. It felt like something was really at stake when the Guardians teamed up to fight this new threat, and it brought out their heroic sides beautifully.

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“And if you don’t love me now/You will never love me again…”

But I can’t give all the credit to the villain. Like I said, everyone goes through a lot of character development in this story, even some semi-villainous people from the first movie, like Yondu and Nebula. We get to see more of the screwed-up sisterly relationship between Gamora and Nebula, which is something I really wanted in this movie. We get to see Rocket, and the rest of the team to some extent, trying to figure out how to parent Groot, who does indeed act like a particularly troublesome baby for most of the movie. And we get a lot more of Star-Lord’s backstory, including more glimpses of what it was like to be raised by space pirates, and several big revelations about his extra-terrestrial heritage. Family is a major theme throughout the movie. Everyone’s problems seem to be caused by their families in some way, but familial love is also what gets them through most of those problems. And of course, the Guardians themselves are basically a big dysfunctional family, as they openly acknowledge in this movie. They may argue a lot, but when push comes to shove, they’ll do anything for each other. Which leads to some heartwarming moments and some misting of the ol’ eyeballs.

All this does give Vol. 2 a more serious tone than its predecessor, but it doesn’t get rid of the fun. Even in the most emotional, epic moments, we’ve still got Rocket and Star-Lord arguing about tape, Baby Groot being a troll, a big monologue about David Hasselhoff, and a Pac-Man reference. These are still the funny, oddball characters we know and love from the first movie, but now they have just a little more depth to them than before. And personally, I think that’s a good thing.

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“I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!”

We also get a few new characters this time around. Peter’s alien father, Ego, has a layered personality and a complicated relationship with his offspring that adds a lot to the story. But my favourite addition to the cast is Mantis, an empathic alien who can feel what another person is feeling as soon as she touches them, but still manages to be socially awkward. She’s cute and funny, and she strikes up an amazing friendship with Drax that leads to some of the movie’s funniest scenes.

Of course, the movie does indulge in a few of Marvel’s staple cliches, but even they come across as less annoying than usual. Sure, there’s some gratuitous Dairy Queen product placement, but how can I get mad at a movie for promoting the Zune, of all things? Our heroes do face an army of faceless goons a couple times, but at least this time they’re starship drones instead of living things, and the people controlling them are played for laughs. Even the Stan Lee cameo didn’t annoy me this time around–maybe just because he seems to fit in better in the Guardians’ crazy galaxy.

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‘Nuff said.

I might have to watch the movies again once or twice to decide which Guardians movie is my favourite, but I know it’s a close call. They’re both a ton of fun, and this one has a more uplifting message: Appreciate your family, even if they’re not perfect. And listen to more Fleetwood Mac.

Seriously, I forgot how awesome “The Chain” is.

Grade: A

Iron Fist

Everyone’s favourite superhero team-up is back. That’s right: Marvel and Netflix made another show!

Iron Fist begins with Danny Rand returning to New York City after being presumed dead, along with his billionaire parents, in a plane crash that happened 15 years ago. But he’s really spent the last 15 years learning kung fu in the mystical land of K’un-Lun, which exists in another dimension, and now that he’s skilled enough to channel the Iron Fist, a magical punching power, he’s come back to try and make his home city a better place. So he’s basically Bruce Wayne if he were a hippie. Or Oliver Queen if he sucked less, or Stephen Strange if he were more into punching…you get the idea. This isn’t the most original show ever.

But the Meacham family, who have taken over Danny’s company, have other plans for the Iron Fist, as does the Hand, that ninja army that invaded New York in Daredevil season 2. With the help of a few fellow martial arts practitioners, Danny spends his first season trying to take down the Hand, avoid the Meachams’ schemes, and figure out what he’s meant to do with his powers.

You know, besides punch drug dealers. That’s a given.

This is the first Marvel/Netflix show to get panned by critics, and it’s not too hard to see why. First of all, a lot of people were biased against it before it even came out because, as mentioned above, it’s yet another story about a rich white guy who goes to a vaguely Asian place, learns kung fu, and ends up being better at it than any of the Asian people who taught him. It’s an old, old story with a ton of racial baggage, and it’s taken directly from the comics. So I’m not sure there was a way to avoid it in an Iron Fist adaptation. But it certainly won’t make anyone happy who was hoping for a more socially progressive Netflix show.

Even if you can overlook the problematic premise, this show has some pretty glaring flaws. For the most part, they’re flaws that the other Defenders shows have also struggled with. For example, just like Luke Cage, and Jessica Jones to some extent, this series is very badly paced. Hardly anything happens for the first three or four episodes, although things do pick up quite a bit once Claire Temple (my queen!) shows up and the Hand formally challenges Danny.

Colleen Wing’s awesomeness doesn’t hurt, either.

In my review of Luke Cage, I said I would have liked the show better if it were  a few episodes shorter, but I think Iron Fist has a different problem. I don’t wish it were shorter. I just wish the first few episodes had taken place, not in the white-collar offices of New York City, but in K’un-Lun, to show Danny training, develop his worldview and relationships with his fellow warriors, and, I dunno, maybe show the part where he got his powers from punching a freaking dragon! How do you give your character a backstory like that and not show it onscreen?  I can guarantee you, my opinion of this show would have gone way up if it had opened with our hero fighting a dragon.

What is the point of wearing your dragon-punching clothes if you’re not going to punch a dragon? Answer me that!

Speaking of our hero, I’m not a huge fan of Danny as a character. Finn Jones does a decent job playing him, and he comes across as a likeable guy with an appealing sort of innocence to him, but I just don’t buy him as a legendary kung fu warrior. Maybe it’s because he looks so much like a 20-something guy you’d see hanging around a pot shop in a Rocky Mountain tourist town, or the straight-faced bits of fortune cookie wisdom he’s always spewing, but I just have a hard time believing that anyone would be intimidated by this guy. It doesn’t help that most of his fight scenes leave a lot to be desired, especially compared to the ones in Daredevil. Overall, I found the Iron Fist to be the least interesting character in his own show. The side characters are a different story, which I’ll get to in a minute.

But all that being said, I think some people are being a little too hard on this show. It has its weaknesses, for sure, but it also has some notable strengths. Besides the pacing, one thing that disappointed me about Luke Cage was its lack of good villains. Iron Fist, thankfully, does not have that problem. The Big Bad of the season is Madame Gao, who has always been the most intimidating Defenders villain, and she hasn’t lost any of her old menace. The delightfully dysfunctional Meacham family brings a stronger inter-villain dynamic than I’ve seen since the first season of Daredevil, and the father, Harold Meacham, is a special kind of creepy. (Although that might just be because it’s so surreal to watch Faramir being a horrible father.) Even the minor Hand members Danny fights tend to be pretty memorable, especially the guy who nearly beats him while drunk and uses his liquor bottles as weapons. I kind of want a show about that guy now.

Apparently this delightful actor auditioned to play Iron Fist, before Finn Jones was cast. Hmm. Awkward.

The other “good” characters are just as interesting. Of course we have Claire Temple in all of her usual awesomeness, and she even gets to do a little fighting this time around, which is great. But I was also surprised by how much I liked Danny’s love interest, Colleen Wing. She’s a kind-hearted lady with a passion for teaching, who lives by a code of honour but still has some dark secrets up her sleeve. Plus she fights with a katana, and I have a major soft spot for katanas. Jessica Henwick does a great job playing her, and honestly I felt a lot more invested in her story arc than Danny’s.

All in all, I think this is a decent show that could have been a lot better. It’s got some great characters, some decent story ideas, and a few cool fight scenes. But this is the last stand-alone series before the Defenders team up, and it just doesn’t feel like it had as much effort put into it as its predecessors. The lead character is kinda bland, the action isn’t nearly as cool as it should be, and a lot of time that should have been spent on the awesome, over-the-top wuxia scenes you’d expect from a show like this is instead spent on corporate politics and pointless subplots. While it never sinks to the level of, say, Arrow, it never really rises above the unfortunate premise it shares with that show, either.

“My name is Danny Rand. After 15 years in heaven, I have come home with only one goal: to save my city.”

I just hope the actual Defenders show is better than this. Or that Daredevil season 3 and the Punisher series come out soon. Now that I’m thinking about it, one mediocre show out of a potential six isn’t really that bad. I’m not writing off the Marvel/Netflix team-up just yet.

Grade: C+

Doctor Strange

Apologies for disappearing for the last few weeks. My life is a bit chaotic right now. But not as chaotic as this Marvel movie I’m about to review!

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Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with a pile of money,  a library of awards, and an ego the size of Texas. All that starts to change after he gets into a horrific car accident (texting while driving is BAD, kids!) that mangles his hands so badly he can’t even shave, let alone perform surgery. Desperate to try anything that could give him his old life back, he goes to Nepal to visit a mystical organisation called the Kamar-Taj, whose adherents are rumoured to have amazing healing abilities. Strange quickly finds out they do a heck of a lot more than heal injuries. Under the guidance of their leader, The Ancient One, he learns how to use magic to enter other dimensions, conjure powerful weapons, and do various other cool things, all of which he’ll soon need to use. Turns out the Kamar-Taj is at war with a rogue sorcerer who wants to unleash a malicious cosmic entity on the world, and Doctor Strange is getting swept into the conflict whether he likes it or not.

On the surface, this is way weirder than your average superhero movie, even considering some of the lesser-known heroes Marvel has brought to the screen recently. It’s got cities that fold themselves into kaleidoscopes, a dimension made entirely of hands, a sentient floating cape, and Benedict Cumberbatch trying to sound American. But despite the trippy visuals and out-of-the-box concept, it’s still a Marvel movie, which means there are certain rules it must follow. It’s got to have product placement (because even sorcerers need their iPads!), it’s got to have a Stan Lee cameo (no matter how jarring and out-of-place it feels), and it’s got to have characters who constantly make funny little quips at each other, even in serious life-or-death situations. And, sadly, it’s gotta have a bland, generic villain whose motives don’t make much sense.

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He also has a serious dry skin problem.

Then there are the more meta problems with this movie–particularly the fact that, even though about half of it takes place in Asia, there’s only one Asian character with any importance to the plot. And it’s not The Ancient One. Although I imagine it’s very hard to adapt a comic book from racist times in a way that doesn’t offend anyone, the people complaining about whitewashing in this movie do have something of a point.

But darn it, none of that is enough to keep me from loving Doctor Strange. It’s just too much fun. Did I mention there’s a scene where a city folds itself into a kaleidoscope? Well, there are also people fighting in that kaleidoscope and weaponising the shifting landscape against each other. It’s like Inception multiplied by 11. I usually avoid 3D when going to the movies, but I made an exception for this one, and did not regret it.

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Who needs drugs when you’ve got this?

Apart from the dodgy accent, Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as a superhero who fights with his mind as much as his fists. All the actors do a good job–yay for Chiwetel Ejiofor and his swordfighting!–but Cumberbatch is the one who really drives the movie. And man, can he pull off that cape and goatee combo.

As for the story itself–okay, so it’s a pretty typical origin story without a lot of big surprises. But it continues and expands upon a pleasing trend I’ve noticed in Marvel origin stories–the importance of humility in a hero’s journey. Tony Stark started out with all the resources he needed to be a hero, but he had to get knocked down a peg, via missile, before becoming Iron Man. Thor went through the same thing–only more dramatically, because he’s Thor. Steve Rogers already was a humble, selfless guy, which is the whole reason he was picked to become Captain America.

In Doctor Strange, the theme of humility is front and center from beginning to end. Strange, being a super smart scientist, starts out believing he knows everything there is to know about how the world works. Then The Ancient One literally punches that arrogance out of him in a mind-bending, dimension-hopping scene that forces him to recognise that reality is a lot bigger than he thought. But it still takes him most of the movie to truly let go of his pride and put others ahead of himself. And that ends up being exactly what he needs to save the day. (By the way, I won’t reveal just how he saves the day in the end, but it is arguably the coolest and cleverest way a Marvel hero has ever defeated a villain.)

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Of course, Sherlock looks cool and clever no matter what he’s doing.

In a time when much of our culture is about encouraging self-promotion and self-centredness,  it’s nice to see a big blockbuster where a hero has to learn that “it’s not about [him].” Let’s just hope that, unlike Iron Man, Doctor Strange remembers his lesson in the next movie.

If I were of a mind to over-analyse,  this movie also lends itself to a few symbolic interpretations. After all, the cosmic being the bad guys are trying to release is basically the Devil, and the scene where the good doctor is first introduced to magic could almost be seen as a jab at atheism. But…again, it’s a Marvel movie. Reading too much into a superhero story can lead to the dark side, as Batman vs. Superman showed us.

Anyhow, Doctor Strange is an excellent film that, in my opinion, beats Civil War for the title of Best 2016 Superhero Movie, even with all its faults. And it’s the rare 3D movie that is actually worth the price of 3D. Just be warned–the effects may cause eye watering and/or headaches. Watch responsibly.

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Ask your doctor if astral projection is right for you.

 

Grade: A