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-

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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-

Wonder Woman

Today is a happy day, my friends. It is a day that shall live on in history.

We finally have a good female superhero movie.

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Wonder Woman
Director: Patty Jenkins
Writer: Allan Heinberg
Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine
Rated PG-13

Diana is a princess of the Amazons, a race of warrior women created by the Greek gods to protect the world from evil. She’s grown up on the island of Themyscira, which is magically hidden from the rest of the world, and has trained since she was a little girl to be the greatest warrior her civilisation has ever known. She gets her first chance to really use those skills when a man comes to Themyscira: Steve Trevor, a World War I pilot who crash-lands near the island and accidentally brings a bunch of angry Germans after him. When Diana finds out that the entire “world of men” is at war, she believes only one person could be responsible: Ares, the god of war, sworn enemy of the Amazons. But the rest of her people refuse to help, leading our hero to steal some special weapons (including a sword aptly called the Godkiller) and run away with Steve to try and save the world. Tank-flipping and lasso-throwing ensue.

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I am Diana, princess of Themyscira, and I am here to save the DC universe!

Wonder Woman is not the best superhero movie ever made. In fact, this has been such a great year for movies that it’s not even the best superhero movie of 2017 (that would be Logan). But it’s special. I drove for an hour to get to the earliest possible showing, just because I wanted to be there when the most famous superheroine of all time finally got the movie she deserved. I’m a woman, and I love superheroes. I can relate to male heroes when they’re written and acted well, but when all the cool ones are male, it starts to feel like Hollywood writers think fans like me don’t exist. Either that or they think it would be totally implausible for a woman to be a cool hero capable of carrying her own story, and that’s even worse.

And even with all the good early reviews, I was still a little bit nervous about this movie. There are so many ways Wonder Woman could go wrong on the big screen, and with the DCEU’s track record so far, I didn’t have a whole lot of faith they could do her justice. But they did! This movie is everything I could possibly have hoped for, in a female superhero movie, in a Wonder Woman movie specifically, and in a DC movie. I loved it!

But before I gush any further, I will admit that Wonder Woman has some flaws. The biggest one, for me, was the overuse of slow motion. It’s not as bad as it was in the Snyder-directed movies, but it does get to be a bit much during most of the battle scenes. Slow motion is kind of a pet peeve of mine, because unless it’s done exceptionally well, it usually just makes a scene cheesier than it needs to be. Also, as is so often the case with superhero movies these days, the villain in this one is a bit weak. His motivations are vague, and he doesn’t really get much of a personality. He’s played by a good actor who does his best to sell the part, but it’s still pretty forgettable.

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This chick, on the other hand, was successfully creepy.

Also, the movie does take some liberties with Wonder Woman’s origin story, the biggest of which is that she enters “man’s world” during the first world war instead of the second. I kind of wish the writers had kept to the original time period, if only because punching Nazis is the greatest and most time-honoured of superhero traditions. But since the villain is the god of war, I guess it does make sense that he would be around for the War to End All Wars, which ended up sparking most of the major conflicts of the 20th century. And finally, I don’t think the “bookend” scenes at the beginning and end of the film, showing Diana in modern-day Paris, were strictly necessary. But maybe that’s just because I don’t appreciate being reminded that this movie takes place in the same universe as Broodingface vs. Sulkypants.

Now, on to the good stuff! Without a doubt, this movie’s greatest strength is Wonder Woman herself. Gal Gadot absolutely nails the role, bringing an infectious joy to the character alongside tons of physical confidence. There is no moral ambiguity about Diana. She’s a kind, compassionate, brave hero who wants to make the world a better place. Her weakness is that she’s a little too optimistic, wanting to believe that all people are good and would never harm each other unless they were under the influence of an evil god. Naturally, the horrors of World War I prove to be more than a little disillusioning for her, and she ultimately has to decide whether she still wants to fight for humanity, despite all our faults, or just give up on the species altogether. But along the way, we get a bunch of endearing scenes that just show her falling in love with the world: seeing a baby for the first time, or getting introduced to things like snow and ice cream. Her unfamiliarity with the social norms of the 1910s also lead to a lot of comical moments, and, shock of all shocks for a live-action DC character, she actually has a sense of humour herself! She’s a three-dimensional character with a compelling arc, and my word, is she incredible in a fight. I could spend hours just watching the scene where she walks across No Man’s Land in full Wonder Woman attire, deflecting machine gun fire off her bracelets. I think I actually let out an audible squee during that scene.

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“I am no man!”

But Diana isn’t the only great character on display. Steve Trevor is also a lot of fun to watch, as per usual for a Chris Pine character. He, of course, falls love with Wonder Woman over the course of the movie, and their relationship develops in a very natural, believable way, as each of them is shown learning from and inspiring the other. You know, like how a relationship should be. And Steve is every inch the hero his girlfriend is, just without the tank-flipping ability. It would have been easy to make Wonder Woman look good by making Steve weak or “un-masculine” in some way, as has been done so many times in movies about tough action girls. But this movie doesn’t go that route, instead portraying both of them as brave, capable heroes with different strengths and weaknesses. Which, again, is the way it should be! 

They’re joined by lots of colourful side characters, from Steve’s British secretary, Etta Candy, to the ragtag bunch of multicultural soldiers and ex-soldiers he’s friends with. They’re all mostly there for comic relief, but most of them get some good character moments as well. Also…a heroic soldier named Steve, played by a guy named Chris, who leads a band of misfit soldiers during a world war, dates a tough brunette, and crashes a plane into the ocean? This movie is like the alternate universe version of Captain America: First Avenger!

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Like that other Steve, he also looks good in a uniform.

Anyway, leaving aside the fact that it’s about a woman for once, this is simply a great superhero movie. It has awesome fight scenes (apart from the slo-mo), plenty of humour, a dash of ridiculousness, and, most importantly, a hero who is unafraid and unashamed to fight for truth, justice, and human decency. It respects the hero’s roots (even throwing in some nods to specific comic book storylines), but takes her in slightly different directions when it suits the story. It doesn’t try too hard to be “gritty” or “realistic,” but instead just gives us good characters so that we become emotionally invested in their journey. Oh, and Wonder Woman’s theme music remains among the coolest I’ve ever heard in a superhero movie.

Wonder Woman also leaves us with an important message: No one person can solve all the world’s problems, even if that person has superpowers. But everyone, superpowers or not, can choose to do good. And that choice is always worthwhile.

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“I will fight for those who cannot fight for themselves.”

All that to say, superhero movies are no longer a “man’s world,” and I could not be happier, either as a woman or a superhero fan. And as a DC fan, well…this movie actually gives me some hope for the rest of the Justice League movies. All may not be lost for my favourite super-team.

May Wonder Woman be a sign of things to come.

Grade: A for Amazon

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

Monthly Movie Rant: A New Year’s resolution

Would you look at that? Christmas is literally three days away, and 2016 is almost over.

“Good riddance!” -The World

This is the time of year when most people start looking at their lives, realising how deeply they have failed in all their goals for the past year, and resolving to do better next year. I am no different, but I’m only going to share with you my blogging New Year’s resolutions. There are two.

First, in 2017, I resolve not to review any sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots or movies based on video games. There were waaaaayyyy too many of those in 2016, and while they were occasionally decent, and one of them actually ended up being my favourite movie of the year, I’m tired of spending my money on movies that only exist to make money. I don’t have all that much cash (one of my personal New Year’s resolutions is to start saving), and I’d rather spend it on movies that are at least trying to be art, in some sense of the word. So I will not be watching, let alone reviewing, the 500th Pirates of the Caribbean movie, or the live-action Beauty and the Beast, or the…King Kong sequel that’s apparently happening? Nope. None of that.

Why is this allowed to exist?

The only exception to this rule is superhero movies. Because I’m an absolute sucker when it comes to those. And there are some really promising-looking ones coming out next year: LEGO Batman, a Wolverine movie that actually looks good, the new Spider-Man…I’m even holding out hope the Wonder Woman movie might be okay. I realise it’s a long shot, since it’s live-action DC and Zack Snyder is probably involved somehow, but wouldn’t it be great if it didn’t suck?

Anyhow, my second resolution is to broaden my horizons. When one lives in America, it is incredibly easy to only watch American movies. Hollywood puts out so many, and they’re so readily available, that you can watch a movie every day and never even notice that other countries have film industries, too. I think it’s shocking that an aspiring film buff such as myself has only seen one or two non-American movies in their entire life. The number of countries I’ve visited is greater than the number of foreign movies I’ve watched. And that’s terrible.

Yes, Godzilla. You are right to judge.

So, to correct that error, I will be reviewing one foreign movie per month throughout 2017. They will be of all genres, ages and languages, and I will be taking requests (although I have a pretty long list already). They’ll all be new to me, and hopefully some will be new to you readers as well.

Allow me to conclude my blogging resolutions by wishing you all a happy Christmas and New Year. Thanks for reading my blog!

I leave you with the best Christmas movie of all time.

Sincerely,
The Wizard

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!

Image result for doctor strange

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.

Image result for doctor strange kaecilius
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.

Image result for doctor strange mirror dimension
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.)

Image result for doctor strange
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.

Image result for doctor strange astral projection
Ask your doctor if astral projection is right for you.

 

Grade: A

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.