Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

What are the two biggest, most consistent weaknesses of the Marvel movie franchises? Well, they have a lot of trouble with direct sequels -- the sole exception being Captain America: Winter Soldier (why, oh why did I never review that movie?!). They also have a lot of trouble with villains -- the sole exception probably being Loki. I'd also throw in a third weakness, which would be the over-reliance on McGuffins to carry the plot.

Well, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 actually manages to avoid all three of those Marvel pitfalls!

Vol. 2 gets around the sequel slump by slowing things down a bit so that it can be a more character-driven story. For the majority of the film, the stakes are set pretty low and personal, and each character gets a chance to be an actual character rather than just an action hero. The main plot revolves around Starlord connecting with his long-lost father, only to discover (almost too late) that said father is actually a supervillain, and that he didn't realize that he had another father figure right there beside him the whole time. That's a great setup. But I almost feel like Starlord and the rest of the Guardians crew feel more like the B-Story here, because this movie feels like it's more about Yondu than about Peter Quill, Gemorah, or any of the main cast. But that might be partly because the entire cast gets such a balanced amount of screen time, and no one character or plot thread dominates the others.

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 - Starlord and dad
This movie operates on a smaller scale, with a more personal conflict -- at least initially.

Despite the frequent cuts and the presence of almost half a dozen individual plot threads, the movie is remarkably tightly-themed. Virtually every plot thread in the film revolves around family. Quill meets his father. Gemorah finally gets to understand her sister. Rocket is dealing with raising Baby Groot and confronts his own inability to stop being an asshole long enough to let anybody actually like him. Drax is being repeatedly reminded of the loss of his own family. And Yondu is dealing with the feeling that he's a failure in the eyes of anybody who he ever might have considered "family".

This family-centered core of the movie then manages to help resolve the second major issue with Marvel movies. Vol 2 actually has a pretty interesting and mysterious villain...

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When I reviewed Captain America: Civil War, I said that "the Marvel cinematic universe may be starting to collapse under its own weight". I probably should have said that "it's starting to buckle under its own weight", since Marvel is still a ways off from anything that resembles collapse. That movie also got better upon repeat viewings, but I feel much the same about the recently-released Doctor Strange. In much the same way that I had suspected that Suicide Squad must have taken place years (or decades) prior to Dawn of Justice, I had also assumed that Doctor Strange must have occurred (at least partly) prior to the events of the first Avengers movie.

The story of Doctor Strange is, after all, essentially a Doubting Thomas story. That would be fine if Doctor Strange were a stand-alone movie, but a Doubting Thomas story is a really difficult thing to buy into within the Marvel cinematic universe. By the beginning of the movie, Stephen Strange (who lives in New York) must surely be aware of (and possibly have first-hand experience with) superhumans since the events of the first Avengers movie. In a world in which the literal Norse God of Thunder Thor has descended from the mystical plane of Asgard, to team up with a gamma-powered Hulk and a super soldier frozen since World War II, to defend New York from an inter-dimensional alien invasion, can you really be all that skeptical of astral projection, alternate dimensions, or even blatant magic?

Avengers Tower in Doctor Strange
Avengers Tower is clearly visible.

If Doctor Strange's car accident and physical therapy took place long before the events of the first Avengers, then this skepticism would be excusable. If Strange spent years at Kamar Taj learning magic, while oblivious to the events of the Avengers movies, Winter Soldier, and Civil War, then that would be a satisfactory explanation for his ignorance. But I don't think that's the case. Doctor Strange was tight-lipped when it came to references to the other Marvel movies (potentially for this very reason), but Avengers Tower still shows up in the skyline, and I'm pretty sure there were references to the other super heroes in the first half of the movie. In fact, I'm pretty sure that Strange gets a phone call asking if he'd be willing to treat an Air Force colonel who broke his spine in experimental armor. This must surely be a reference to Rhodes' accident in Civil War.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
Strange is asked if he'd be willing to treat Colonel Rhodes after injuries sustained in Civil War.

Maybe I'm being nitpicky, but buy-in is important in fantastical movies like this. But it's hard to buy into Stephen Strange, and it certainly doesn't help that he's an abrasive ass hole and isn't very likeable at the start of the movie...

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X-Men: Apocalypse

There's a bit in X-Men: Apocalypse in which Cyclops, Jean Grey, Nightcrawler, and Jubilee are walking out of a theater after seeing Return of the Jedi. Cyclops and Jubilee are arguing about whether Empire was better than Star Wars, and Jean remarks that "we can all agree that the third one is always the worst". This, of course is a jab at X-Men 3: the Last Stand, which I'm sure we can all agree is still the worst of the X-Men movies. It's also the first one that Bryan Singer didn't direct. But what might - or might not - be lost on Singer and his writers is the little bit of irony that Apocalypse is also the third movie in a series: the prequel series that started with X-Men: First Class.

X-2 and Days of Future Past remain the standout excellent films in this particular franchise. I don't think that Apocalypse ever degrades quite to the train wreck that was The Last Stand - not even close. But it does fall victim to some of the same traps that The Last Stand fell into: namely that it perhaps tried to fit too many stories into one, and doesn't tell any one of them particularly well. Much like The Last Stand, this one even starts to fall on its face when it goes into "Dark Pheonix" territory. Thankfully, they avoided turning that into a major plot thread though...

Perhaps the clumsiest storyline here was the Four Horsemen themselves. As per the comics, Apocalypse must recruit four powerful mutants, amplify their powers, and then use them as his own personal bodyguards. Other than Magneto, these characters' introductions and development all had to be rushed through. It seems a bit ironic that in these movies, it always seems to be the characters that we're most familiar with who get the most set-up and exposition; while the new characters receive little-or-no explanation or development. I never really bought into these horsemen though, or why they would be willing to help this obvious villain. I get that he tricked some of them with promises that he would "save humanity from itself", and he earned some loyalty with others by healing them and making them stronger, and that he used Magneto's grief and anger to his advantage, but the moment his plans started shifting away from "destroying corrupt systems and governments" towards outright "destroy the world", I just couldn't believe that none of the others batted an eye! Was there some kind of mind control going on as well? But he doesn't have mind control powers; that's why he wants Professor X.

X-Men: Apocalypse - four horsemen
Aside from Magneto, The Four Horsemen felt undeveloped and lacking in motivation.

Maybe if the movie could have established that Apocalypse had somehow brainwashed them, then I'd be more willing to accept it...

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Captain America: Civil War poster

Why is this a "Captain America" movie? Why couldn't Marvel just call this "Avengers: Civil War" or "Marvel: Civil War"? This movie is just as much about Tony Stark as it is about Captain America, and the entire ensemble (minus a Hulk and plus a Spider-Man and Black Panther) is present.

Speaking of Spider-Man, let's get this out of the way right from the start. His presence felt like completely contrived fan service and the tonal shift that he brings kind of hurts the movie. He's pulled out of nowhere for no good reason so that he can participate in the big, fun battle royale; and then he's sent home when it's over and has absolutely no relevance to the movie's plot or themes. Tony Stark has no idea that Cap has recruited Ant Man, and I'm not even sure if he was aware that Hawkeye had broken Scarlet Witch out of the compound yet. Shouldn't Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Black Panther, and Vision have been enough to take down Captain America, Falcon, and Bucky? Did he really think he needed to recruit an innocent, un-involved person and put him at risk?

That being said, this is the best combination of Spider-Man and Peter Parker that has been presented in live-action film to date. I do miss the New York accent of Andrew Garfield and the picture-perfect spider-suit from Amazing Spider-Man 2 (though I like the colors in Civil War better), and I think that the Sam Raimi films had the best supporting cast (outside of McGuire, Dunst, and Franco), but virtually everything about Civil War's Spider-Man was great.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
Despite the lack of a New York accent, this is probably the best film of portrayal of Peter Parker and Spider-Man.

Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand

So how does the rest of the movie do?

It kind of reminds me of Serenity (the film follow-up to the series Firefly). Both the Firefly series and the preceeding Marvel films have all been very light-hearted, fun, and energetic. They've been full of charismatic, witty characters, genuine emotion, and exciting action. But Serenity and Civil War are much more brooding. The characters don't really get along, they all seem tired, there's less wit, and much of their charisma is lost. Even characters that we may have loved before now seem somewhat dull and might not be very fun to watch.

The action is still great, the characters are still fine, and there's still some humor and wit in the dialogue. But it feels like the soul that Marvel has built up for its universe has been sucked out. The darker themes of the plot aren't even necessarily the problem here. After all, I loved Winter Soldier (and really regret that I never wrote a review of it), and that movie had a darker edge to it. But it also deviated from the established formula and showed creativity and cleverness that the other Marvel movies didn't have. It felt more like a James Bond or Jason Bourne spy-thriller than the typical Marvel comic book movie, and that was great! Similarly, Ant Man (which I also regret not reviewing) felt more like a criminal heist movie, which was also great! Both felt unique enough that they transcended the tropes and McGuffins that they relied upon.

Captain America: Civil War - brooding characters
The characters have less energy and charisma about them.

Civil War, on the other hand, falls back on many of the formulaic tropes that the Marvel films were based on. It's another revenge and McGuffin plot. The McGuffin just happens to be a person this time around, and the entire second half of the movie could have been avoided if the characters would have just let each other talk. It's this formulaic model that conflicts with the dour tone and actually leads to large chunks of the movie actually feeling boring. And much like Age of Ultron before it, this movie feels a bit too bloated for its own good. I'd much rather have seen more screen time and development for Black Panther, and no Spider-Man at all...

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Deadpool

Deadpool tries to make a big deal about how this is "a different kind of super hero movie". He backs this up by pointing out how he just turned a bad guy into a bloody kabob, and by dropping F-bombs and explicit sex jokes every other line of dialogue. True it isn't exactly the typical super hero movie, but it wasn't anything that we haven't already seen in the larger field of comic book movies. Adaptations of graphic novels like Watchmen, Kickass, Sin City, and 300 are loaded with plenty of gratuitous, graphic violence, foul language, sex, and even some impressive glowing blue penises. Heck, even within the subset of Marvel superhero movies, there's already the R-rated Blade.

So I thought it was a bit pretentious for Deadpool to make his movie out to be "unique" for its hard-R rating. It isn't. And it certainly isn't that unique in its plot, which is a pretty standard, cliched origin story with love interest female lead, complete with the hero trying to rescue his kidnapped girlfriend from an arrogant villain. Nothing new there. It is a little bit more unique in its sense of humor though. If you didn't already know, Deadpool is pretty infamous for being a fourth-wall-breaking meta character. In his appearances in comic books, he routinely jokes or comments about being in a comic book, and his appearances in video games also usually include references to comic books or to video games.

So this movie is trying to sell itself on its wit, and it both succeeds brilliantly, and fails miserably. The opening credit sequence and other digs at the studio system (including a dig at the studio being too cheap to afford any other X-Men cameos) work very well. Other pop culture references fall a bit flat and will only serve to date the movie in the future. I was also very disappointed that Deadpool didn't comment on the absurdly cliche plot twist of the villain kidnapping the hero's girlfriend. That's like a violation of cardinal rule #1 for movie supervillians: don't kidnap the hero's girlfriend. Unless her name is Gwen Stacy, then I guess you've got a case for the kidnapping.

Ryan Reynolds pulls the character off with pitch perfect execution, and his performance isn't hurt at all by the occasional poor joke. He inhabits the role with the same dedication as Robert Downy Jr. in Iron Man, and Reynolds and Deadpool will likely be inseparable from each other for the future.

Deadpool - romance
Despite the cliche plot, Morena Baccarin's character is surprisingly relevant to the protagonist's development.

The villain is pretty lame though, with paper-thin motivation that really does prevent the cliche plot from really transcending the banality of the genre. And really, that's probably the greatest weakness of the movie. Despite taking [what the studio apparently perceives as] risks with the R-rating and over-the-top violence and sex, the actual plot is so "safe" and cheesy. It probably would have worked a bit better for me if it had stuck to being a revenge movie, but once it became apparent that the bad guy was going to kidnap the girlfriend, I kind of sighed and sunk back into my chair, "Oh, another one of these."

At least the romance is much more integral to the movie's plot than in other super hero movies in which the love interest feels tacked on and just there...

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A gamer's life...

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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