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

Luke Cage

Another show has been spawned from the marriage of Netflix and Marvel. Let the geeks rejoice!

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Those who are up-to-date on the growing family of heroes who will one day make up the Defenders will recognize the title character from his role as kinda-sorta-love-interest on Jessica Jones. After all the unfortunate things that went down on that show, he has moved back to his old neighborhood in Harlem and is laying low, working in a barbershop by day and a nightclub by…well, night. But he quickly learns that it’s hard to lie low when you have superpowers, an urge to help others, and a bunch of gangsters terrorising your hometown. It takes some prodding–and some especially evil actions by said gangsters–but Luke gradually comes to embrace his unwanted super strength and become the hero Harlem needs.

I can’t talk about this show without comparing it to Daredevil and Jessica Jones. As someone who is in love with the former and was disappointed by the latter, I rank Luke Cage somewhere between them.

Let’s start by looking on the bright side. This show has two big advantages over both its predecessors. One is the music. A good chunk of the action takes place in and around a nightclub, which gives the writers an excuse to bring in lots of great jazz, soul and hip-hop performances. DD and JJ don’t have super memorable soundtracks apart from their theme songs, but here the soundtrack is one of the best parts of the whole show.

Secondly, this show has SO MUCH CLAIRE TEMPLE. I have loved Claire from the moment she arrived in Daredevil, but she never got enough screen time on that show, and she only showed up for one episode of Jessica Jones. Here she finally gets the spotlight she deserves, as she joins Luke on his quest to clean up the city and embraces her own destiny as a superhero medic. The only down side is that she’s also presented as a love interest here, and as a die-hard Clairedevil shipper, I can’t condone that. Luke’s a nice guy and all, but Claire belongs with Matt Murdock. Why must you keep knocking holes in my ships, writers??

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Her superpower is talking sense into guys with superpowers. 

 

 

The show introduces lots of fun new characters as well. My favourites were Misty Knight, a super-smart detective who helps Luke uncover the injustice in his town, and Shades, a smug yet effective villain who I loved to hate.

Speaking of villains, though, they’re not one of this show’s greatest strengths. Instead of one Big Bad, like DD and JJ faced in their first seasons, Luke has a whole posse of them, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Cottonmouth, the first crime boss introduced on the show, indulges in his evil laugh a few too many times, but is otherwise a convincing threat with nicely complicated motives. His cousin/accomplice, Mariah Dillard, is pretty much your basic corrupt politician, and she gets increasingly annoying as the season goes on. The show’s other major crime boss, Diamondback, is just…utterly ridiculous. What with the random Bible verses and pop culture references he spouts at every turn, his stupid outfits, and his weird backstory with Luke that pops up out of nowhere, I couldn’t take him very seriously.

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Dude. What are you doing. Stop.

The biggest problem I had with this show, though, was the pacing. I think this first season would have been better if it were a couple episodes shorter, or if each episode was cut down to 30 minutes. The story is a lot simpler and more straightforward than JJ’s or (especially) DD’s, so it doesn’t quite fill out the 13-hour run time. As a result, everything moves veeerrryyyy slooowwwlly. Especially by superhero standards. There are relatively few action scenes and lots of boring speeches and conversations that seem only to serve as filler. And I think it’s these filler conversations that give rise to the second biggest problem with this show.

Let me preface this criticism by saying I applaud Luke Cage’s writers for being willing to take on some difficult issues surrounding race in America. And, you know, just for making a superhero show with an almost entirely non-white cast in the first place. I think this might be the first time that’s been done, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. With the current U.S. political climate being what it is, the arrival of a black street-level superhero feels incredibly timely.

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[rap music plays]
The thing is…I could have figured all that out on my own. But this show insists on spelling out for me, repeatedly, in every episode, just how awesomely symbolic it is to have a bulletproof black man in a hoodie fighting crime. There are so many speeches to that effect (one even comes in song form!) that it starts to feel like major overkill by the end of the season. And it’s a shame, because this is one superhero show that actually has a lot of important things to say. I just think it would be more effective if it tried to say them with a  bit of subtlety.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, because I did enjoy a lot of things about Luke Cage. So let’s talk about Luke himself. Unlike DD and JJ (I’m really liking those nicknames, can you tell?), he doesn’t have a lot of emotional and ethical baggage to carry around. Sure, he’s a little angsty about his powers, which is kind of understandable since he got them by way of an evil science experiment, but for the most part he’s a nice guy who genuinely wants to help his neighbors out. For that reason, this is easily the most light-hearted of the Defenders shows so far, even though it comes with its fair share of violence and gore. When Luke does get around to fighting crime (which doesn’t happen nearly often enough), it’s a lot of fun to watch. If he didn’t have those moments of self-doubt that seem to be built into every superhero’s contract these days, I almost think he could be Marvel’s version of the Flash–an upbeat, optimistic good guy to act as a foil to all the dark anti-heroes. It’ll be interesting to see how he works with Daredevil, that’s for sure.

Overall, Luke Cage is a good introduction to a likable character. It doesn’t come close to reaching the standard set by Daredevil, but at least it’s more fun than the despair-fest that was Jessica Jones. And I have hopes that Luke may still rise to his full potential in future instalments. I’m also hoping for even more Claire, because she is seriously the best.

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Isn’t it her turn to get her own show?

 

As everyone with a Netflix account should know by now, this is not the kind of Marvel show you watch with kids. There’s quite a bit of violence and swearing (including copious use of the n-word), and a couple NSFW scenes at the beginning. But for any adults who are interested in following the Defenders to their inevitable team-up, it’s a must-see.

Grade: B

Monthly Movie Rant: What other heroes can learn from Batman

Welcome to my first Monthly Movie Rant! (I’ll try to make this a monthly thing, anyway–we’ll see how it goes.)

I’ve been thinking about superhero movies lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Batman movies. Mainly because I watched five of them last week. (Yes, I am aware that I have a problem.)

But he’s just…so…cool…

Batman is arguably the most enduringly popular superhero of all time, at least when it comes to us film fans. Sure, he hasn’t been around quite as long as Superman (though it’s very close), but he has, like, three times the number of good movies. And now that Marvel and DC have enough superhero films planned out to last my entire lifetime, I think it’s time the other heroes started learning from the master. So, heroes, here’s how you can be more like Batman:

1. Don’t be so high and mighty and powerful.

In a metaphorical sense.

Batman’s only superpower is the ability to have a plan for all possible situations, and several impossible ones, at all times, which is really just a basic survival skill if you live in the DC universe. And I think that’s a big part of his appeal. I believe a superhero’s main job is wish fulfillment, and a hero without powers is perfect for that. Batman is rich, powerful, handsome, and has ninja skills. But there’s nothing supernatural about him, which means, if you dream really big and come from a wealthy family, even YOU could be Batman! But seriously, who hasn’t calculated the exact amount of money and training they would need in order to be Batman? That’s part of his whole shtick even in-universe: “The Batman could be anyone.” It also makes him more relatable. Here’s a superhero who can’t just fly away from his problems, even if he wanted to. He’s more down-to-earth (both literally and figuratively) than your average man in tights. I believe it’s possible for powered heroes to achieve this kind of dynamic–after all, even they have weaknesses–but the only other one I can think of who really comes close is Iron Man, and, well, he can still fly. Plus, Iron Man is a jerk.

2. Have a heart.

Pictured: heroism.

And Batman is not a jerk! This is, hands down, my favourite thing about him: in most portrayals (certainly all the best ones), Batman is a big softie underneath all that scary bat imagery. In Batman Begins, he takes time out of an important mission to cheer up a poor kid. In the Year One comic, which helped inspire that movie, he punches a corrupt cop through a wall, not because he had just tried to kill him, but because he shot at a cat. And he constantly hangs on to the belief that all the people in his wretched hive of a city can be redeemed, no matter how hopeless it gets. It’s those little things that make a hero, in my mind. Lately a lot of heroes are always fighting such big battles, or are so busy battling each other, that we lose touch with what made them heroic in the first place. We’ve got enough movies about superheroes stopping alien invasions and what-not. I want more heroes who cheer up little kids.

(No, I didn’t like Batman vs. Superman – why do you ask?)

3. Find better villains.

“I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.”

As awesome as Batman is, he would never have come this far without his rogues gallery, particularly the Joker. But even ignoring those guys, consider who Batman fights in between encounters with mutated freaks: regular, run-of-the-mill gangsters and crooked police. In other words, exactly the kind of villains we have in the real world. This ties back to the wish-fulfillment thing. For me, the most effective heroes are the ones who deal with semi-realistic problems. It can be very nice to imagine a powerful guy in a cape swooping in to bring child abusers and bribe-takers to justice, because justice sure ain’t happening in real life. And the Joker, in his own way, feels even more real. He’s not just some random evil guy. He’s the embodiment of evil, especially the kind of mindless, chaotic evil that’s becoming terrifyingly common in the age of terrorism and school shootings. And in a Batman movie, you can watch somebody beat him. I would argue that the reason Marvel has yet to produce a compelling villain in their movies (the Netflix shows are, admittedly, a different story) is because they insist on having the heroes fight gods and mad scientists who bear no resemblance to regular, everyday evil. I mean, would it kill the Avengers to take a day off from the space battles and beat up some drug dealers? Daredevil could sure use the help!

4. Find better directors.

He’s not the kind of hero Hollywood deserves, but the kind it needs.

Batman has appeared in countless excellent stories, across all forms of media, but I’d be lying if I said my obsession with him isn’t Christopher Nolan’s fault. And is that so surprising? Nolan is easily the most respected director who has made a superhero film, at least in my lifetime. Okay, Joss Whedon was already famous–for cult TV shows. Zack Snyder was kinda famous–for a long string of comic book movies that all looked exactly the same and featured naked people as their primary selling point. But Nolan has yet to make a movie that isn’t highly artistic, philosophical, and critically acclaimed. That’s the kind of director you want for a superhero movie, because when you come right down to it, a good superhero movie is good for the same reasons as any other movie: well-rounded and likable characters, tight editing, a coherent story, and cool visuals. Hollywood clearly has the money to spend on A-list actors for their comic book movies; why not hire A-list directors as well?

5. Do your own thing.

Hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

Part of the reason Batman became so popular in the first place was because he was so unique. Superheroes in general were pretty new back then, and the Bat’s darker world and more pragmatic crime-fighting style provided a nice contrast to Superman and his ilk. In these post-Nolan days, a lot of superheroes have tried to copy Batman, but they do it in the wrong ways. Marvel looked at the Dark Knight saga and thought, “Hey, evil laughs and motiveless villains really DO work!” DC looked at them and thought, “These movies are really dark. Audiences must like dark superheroes.” And then they hired Zack Snyder and put a ban on jokes and bright colours for all future movies. People didn’t like Nolan’s Batman trilogy (or any other Batman fare) because it was dark. They liked those movies because they were good movies. Other heroes, you can find your own ways to be great! Just follow the general advice above and put your own spin on it. Some of you are already trying. Keep it up, and one day you may step out from Batman’s shadow, just like Nightwing did.

Speaking of which, can anyone give me a good reason why there isn’t a live-action Nightwing movie in the works? I would watch that until my eyes bled.

Captain America: Civil War

Once upon a time, I was worried that the first Avengers movie would be a complete flop. It was bringing together too many superheroes who were too different from each other, and there was no way they could all fit into one coherent plot without turning it into a traffic jam. Then Joss Whedon worked his magic and made all my fears look ridiculous. Now, four years later, consider the Russos’ task in directing Civil War. There are twelve heroes in this movie, two of whom are making their MCU debut, plus a couple new villains and side characters. Civil War has to set up the next four or five Marvel movies, wrap up loose ends from Age of Ultron and The Winter Soldier, and somehow still be focused on Captain America enough to justify marketing itself as a solo outing for him. And it manages to do all that, and still be the most entertaining movie of the year so far. I think I love the Russo brothers.

As has become the norm with Avengers movies, this one starts with a big action scene. An Avengers team led by Captain America is in Lagos, trying to stop a very angry former HYDRA agent from releasing a biological weapon. They succeed, but newcomer Scarlet Witch makes a mistake that results in lots of civilian casualties. The world’s governments have noticed that this sort of thing happens rather often, and next thing you know, the US Secretary of State is showing up at the Avengers compound, asking the heroes to sign an agreement that would put all their operations under the supervision of the UN. Tony Stark, wracked with guilt over the mayhem his mistakes caused in Age of Ultron, is all for the new rules; Cap, still fresh from dealing with a corrupt government institution in Winter Soldier, is against them. The rest of the Avengers start to take sides, but things really get personal when Bucky Barnes is blamed for a bombing at the UN headquarters. Cap is sure he’s innocent and wants to protect his friend, but the Avengers who signed the agreement are obliged to hunt Bucky down. Also on the former assassin’s trail is the king of Wakanda, who is out for revenge after losing someone in the bombing and has many more skills than his title would imply.

Witness the living embodiment of “cool.”

As superhero movies go, this one is pretty much a masterpiece. Then again, so was the also-Russo-directed Winter Soldier, so what did you expect? The action scenes are beautiful. Captain America pulls a helicopter out of the sky with his HANDS. Bucky’s method of stealing a motorcycle must be seen to be believed. And of course there’s the epic six-on-six fight between both halves of the Avengers at an empty airport. Everybody gets to show off their skills, and it’s fun to watch because none of them are actually trying to kill each other (not at that point in the movie, anyway).

The good thing about the huge, sprawling nature of the MCU is that it gives filmmakers time to develop their characters and give them believable motives and relationships. What makes this movie work is the fact that we’ve spent several years getting to know the main characters, so none of their actions seem forced or unbelievable. The central conflict is basically the culmination of years of tension between Steve and Tony, starting when they first met each other in The Avengers. And I appreciate that the movie doesn’t really take sides. Both leaders are presented as flawed men just trying to do what they believe is right. Which makes the ever-escalating conflict between them all the more tragic.

As awesome as this scene is in the movie, I can’t get over how hilarious everyone’s expression is in this picture.

Of course, if I were to take a side, I’d be Team Cap all the way. For one thing, he’s just generally a nicer person than Iron Man, and for another, I always tend to sympathise with people who don’t trust the government. Like Steve says at one point, “My faith’s in people, I guess. Individuals.” The importance of individual choices is highlighted throughout the film; each member of the Avengers has to choose a side, after all, and each of their decisions has major consequences. This movie shows the damage that can be done by an individual who makes a wrong or ill-informed choice; but, through Bucky’s backstory in particular, it also shows the consequences of taking away a person’s ability to make the right choice. And it ain’t pretty.

I think Civil War also does an excellent–and heartbreaking–job of portraying the way a strong relationship can crumble. The Power of Friendship has been a major theme in all the Avengers movies, but this one shows that power isn’t invincible. Steve’s teamwork and friendship with Tony and the other Avengers has been able to overcome their personality differences, age gaps, murky pasts, etc.–but there are some things that can’t be forgiven with a pat on the back and a friendly monster slaying. Whether it’s a difference in beliefs or a personal injury, some rifts between friends are too wide to mend, at least for a long time. It’s, sadly, the most realistic thing about this movie. Bring some tissues. I’m serious.

On a lighter note, the new Spider-Man is great. Funny, powerful, and surprisingly angst-free (we meet him after he’s had a while to get over Uncle Ben’s death, so that helps). And T’Challa, aka Black Panther, shows up all the other heroes with his sheer majesticness and, by the end, considerable moral high ground. I can’t wait to see these guys in their own movies.

“This thing doesn’t obey the laws of physics at all!”

I have a few minor quibbles: couldn’t help but find the idea of Steve hooking up with his old girlfriend’s niece a bit icky, especially since her parentage is practically the only thing we know about her; and there was really no need for the location titles to cover the entire screen whenever they showed up. But those minor details weren’t enough to keep me from grinning like an idiot through the whole thing. This is a lovely film.

Grade: A