It's really getting hard to imagine Marvel and Disney ever genuinely screwing one of these movies up. I keep expecting that the next Marvel movie is going to be the one that finally breaks the camel's back and brings the whole enterprise crashing down. It's getting increasingly difficult to trust or like Disney as it grows into even more of a massive corporate conglomerate that keeps devouring and controlling pop culture media. From its virtual monopoly on childhood fairy tale and story-book imagery, to its ownership of cultural touchstones like Star Wars, to its success with Marvel, to its plans to purchase Fox's film studios and all the properties therein (Alien vs Predator vs Guardians of the Galaxy, anyone?), Disney is growing scarily large and powerful and owns far too much of our shared pop culture. Heck, Disney also owns ESPN and therefore has a controlling stake in how our non-fiction cultural entertainment is presented to us as well! This gives the Disney Corporation a potentially-dangerous, unprecedented influence on the world's collective cultural consciousness.

After the Fox buy-out, Disney and its subsidiaries could own up to 40% of every movie that comes to theater screens, and the studio's growing monopoly on blockbusters could translate to a virtual monopoly in cinemas in general. With so much theater revenue coming from Disney movies, theaters are forced to accept distribution deals that are increasingly one-sided in Disney's favor.

Because of all this, I find myself actually hoping to a certain degree that Disney and Marvel finally screw one of these up and release a flop of Batman v Superman proportions. I keep hoping for its tightening grip on cinemas to loosen and allow other competitors to finally step up and put Disney in its place. Once again, that hasn't happened.

Black Panther expertly straddles several different film genres. Most obviously, it's a comic book superhero movie (d'uh). But it's also a very mythological movie, and also sci-fi futurism (from a rarely-seen Afro-futurist perspective). And there's a large spy thriller chunk in the middle that could have been pulled straight from a James Bond movie, complete with a Q stand-in reviewing the hero's new gadgets, and culminating in a super-powered car chase through an exotic foreign city. There's also a Shakespearean bent that comes from the themes of living up to one's father's legacy, dealing with a monster of your own making, and noble intentions going awry. It all works pretty well, with only a few minor stumbles.

Part mythologic super hero story, part sci-fi futurism, part James Bond spy thriller.

I'm not sure how much of the production design was handled by individuals who are black or African or of direct African descent (or if it was a bunch of white guys in a conference room wondering "what would African futurism look like?"), but the end result seems (from my perspective as being descended from white European imperialists) to be very faithful and respectful. It's also a visual treat. I felt like some of the Vibranium technological gimmicks were a bit "too much" for a setting that is supposed to be our contemporary world. Specifically, the magic balls that can apparently instantly heal fatal wounds strained my credulity quite a bit, especially since I don't think the movie ever really explained what Vibranium does or what it's actual limitations are. Then again, this is the umpteenth installment in a series that has World War II super-soldiers, men flying around in robot suits of armor, literal Norse gods descending from literal Asgard, magic space rock MacGuffins, space aliens, and even literal magic. A little suspension of disbelief is to be assumed...

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Thor Ragnarok poster

The Marvel movies have always been very light-hearted and fun, leaning heavily on humor and wit to keep the audience's attention during the slow dialogue bits. Thor: Ragnarok seems to take things to a new level though -- at least, outside of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies. Ragnarok comes off as almost a full-blown comedy. It's good. It works well. I just hope that this doesn't become a new de facto template for future Marvel movies, as it would eventually run itself very dry.

That being said, the Marvel films have definitely shown signs of growth after Avengers: Age of Ultron. The plot doesn't revolve around a magic MacGuffin, and it's not even really a revenge story. The bad guy just wants to conquer Asgard because she's an ambitious bitch who wants power. There's a little bit of a vengeance angle, as she's obviously mad at Odin and Asgard for imprisoning her. But Odin's dead before she even shows up, so she basically just shows up and says "kneel before me or be destroyed." Hela is kind of bland. I wish they'd done more with the Planet Hulk stuff instead -- maybe even making Hulk be the bad guy?

I also initially struggled to find any sort of core, unifying theme, and walked out of the movie not quite sure what it was supposed to have been about. The overarching theme seems to be that Thor doesn't need the hammer to be powerful, but isn't that just retreading the core lesson that he learned in the first movie? Besides, the whole "the power was in you all along" thing only comes up at one point mid-way through the movie, and then Anthony Hopkins' Odin shows up at the very end to just tell Thor that he doesn't need the hammer. It felt like a bit of a copout.

Ragnarok has no compunctions about shaking up the status quo.

But I don't think the Dumbo storyline is actually the point here. I think the point is the movie's fatalistic (yet still, somehow, upbeat) ending. Despite the tongue-in-cheek, comical tone, this movie does nothing if not completely disregard that status quo. True to the movie's namesake, the end of the world actually does happen this time around! Asgard (along with the Rainbow Bridge) is destroyed, Odin is dead, The Asgardian army has been massacred, Mjolnir is destroyed, Bruce Banner is [supposedly] irreversibly transformed into the Hulk, and so on...

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Spider-Man: Homecoming poster

Spider-Man was a fairly revolutionary comic book character when he was first revealed back in the '60's. Being a nerdy, socially-awkward young teenager, a large portion of the comic-book-reading audience could relate to him in ways that they simply couldn't with characters like Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and the Fantastic Four. Peter Parker was one of them.

Finally casting an actual teenager to fill the role of Peter Parker / Spider-Man is an obviously brilliant (and overdue) move that does for this generation of young superhero movie audiences, what the original Spider-Man did for comic-reading kids in the '60's. For the first time, I can actually buy into this film version of Peter Parker as a high school student. There's a lot more focus on teenage drama and on Peter's conflicting responsibilities as Spider-Man and as a student. He flakes out on his friends, misses quizzes and extra-curricular activities. He worries about who he could invite to the homecoming dance, and worries that if Aunt May finds out about his superheroing, she might ground him.

Peter's age and his relatability to young audiences isn't the only parallel that this movie makes with the early issues of the comics. The first issue of Amazing Spider-Man included a storyline in which Spider-Man attempted to join the Fantastic Four. Homecoming is about Spider-Man seeking to join the Avengers (since Marvel doesn't have the film rights to the Fantastic Four yet). Homecoming skips over the first Spidey villain (who was the Chameleon) and focuses on the Vulture, who first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #2. This movie also throws in the Tinkerer, who was also featured in a storyline of Amazing Spider-Man #2. The love interest is even fellow high-schooler Liz Allan, who even preceded Gwen Stacy as one of Peter's first romantic interests in the comics.

Trying to step out of Sam Raimi's spider-shadow

Much like the Sam Raimi movies, the supporting cast here is excellent -- and unlike the Sam Raimi movies, the main cast is spot-on too! Sure, it doesn't have J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson, and I have a hard time believing that anybody can beat Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris as Uncle Ben and Aunt May, but everyone here puts in a great effort. Robert Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark appearance is much more substantive than a simple phoned-in cameo, and Michael Keaton is absolutely fantastic as an increasingly-unhinged working-class bad guy who's simply trying to run his modest weapon-smuggling ring under the radar of the Avengers.

Instead of trying to join the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man is trying to join the Avengers.

I'm also grateful that this movie is a bit more upbeat and less mopey and brooding than the Sam Raimi films...

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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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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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