Another summer, another onslaught of comic book movies. This year, we're spared the misery of another of Warner's DC Comic movies, so we get two Marvel movies (including the recently-released Infinity War and the soon-to-be-released Ant Man and the Wasp), and we get a sequel to Fox's Deadpool. The first Deadpool was pretty great, even though it wasn't as groundbreaking as it seemed to think it was. Nevertheless, it was thoroughly entertaining, and the sequel follows suit.

I do think that the first movie's humor is executed much better though, as the sequel frequently fell flat for me. That isn't for lack of trying though. Deadpool 2 almost tries too hard. The jokes come fast and relentless. A lot of them fall flat, but the volume of attempts is so high that the audience the audience is chuckling or laughing every couple minutes. It's almost a "Barney Stinson" approach to joke-telling: if you tell enough, at least some of them will work. Then again, it might also be different jokes for different people.

I rarely ever found myself laughing out loud during this movie. I laughed out loud to a few jokes in the first movie, but hardly anything in this one. It was a lot more quietly chuckling to myself or nodding along that "Ah, I get it". At least there weren't quite as many contemporary pop culture references this time around (which means this movie will probably age better than the first one will), as more of the jokes were at the expense of comic book movies and comic books in general. Since I didn't read X-Men too extensively, a lot of it probably just went over my head.

I only found myself laughing at a small fraction of the jokes, including the extended X-Force gag.

Again, Deadpool takes a lot of shots at the studio, complaining once again about the lower budget of the movie and the lack of any recognizable X-Men. He asks if Cable is from the DC Universe because Cable is so dark and brooding, and he takes several other shots at Batman v Superman and Justice League. He also takes a couple shots at Marvel Studios, including referring to Cable as Thanos.

Is the crappy quality of the CGI villain intentional? Is that supposed to be a joke? If so, does that justify the dated CG that was used?

Cable and Deadpool play off each other really well.

It's hard to tell if other signs of uninspired writing are deliberate jokes, or just examples of uninspired writing, especially since Deadpool quips once or twice about the movie's lazy writing. For example, does it really make sense that Deadpool and Cable are trying to stop Firefist from going on a killing spree, even though Deadpool and Cable kill literally everyone in their path to do so? Wouldn't that just reinforce in Firefist's mind that killing is acceptable?

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Movie audiences were all pleasantly surprised when the ensemble cast of Avengers all came together to make a pretty damned good movie. There was genuine anxiety regarding whether that movie could possibly successfully bring four movies' worth of superheroes together into a single movie, and manage to give everybody enough valuable screen time to make the whole thing work. Similarly, there was considerably anxiety regarding whether or not Marvel could double-down and pull off an ensemble of ensembles for the mega-crossover Infinity War. But at this point, I think we've all moved past any expectation that Marvel will screw up, and we all just assume that they're going to find a way to magically make it all work.

I had to wait a couple weeks to find out. I had planned to see the movie the Monday after release and have this review out two weeks ago, but fate conspired against that. Towards the end of the trailers, somebody pulled the fire alarm in the building, forcing the theater to evacuate. It was a false alarm, but by the time they let everyone back in, it was too late and the movie wouldn't be over in time to pick up the kids from KidsQuest before they closed for the night. Ah well. My girlfriend finally got sick of having to hush her students whenever they started talking about the movie, so she dragged me out to the theater earlier this week.

The sheer volume of characters, content, and punches here does make Infinity War one of the more unbalanced of Marvel's movies. It is after all, weaving a complex tapestry of superhero action, science fiction, and magical fantasy, and there's virtually no set-up or development for the characters. This movie is all climax all the time. It's probably the first Marvel movie that really requires that you have seen most of the lead-up material. There simply isn't enough time here to introduce who everyone is and what their deal is. If you haven't seen at least one film featuring each character, you'll likely be lost with regard to who they are. Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, and Ragnarok are pretty much essential prerequisite viewing. You can skip Ant Man though, as he's conspicuously absent from this particular compilation piece.

Infinity War is an ensemble of ensembles.

This movie would probably fail miserably if it were a typical super-hero movie focused around the heroes and their struggle (and failure) to beat the bad guy. Marvel knows well enough to not try to replicate The Empire Strikes Back. Instead, Infinity War is much more about the bad guy. Thanos is pretty much the main character here, and a great deal of time and effort is paid to trying to make him as relatable and understandable of a villain as possible. He is characterized with nuance, he's clever, he's ruthless, and he's consistent in his goals and ambition. Whether or not you sympathize with his point of view will, of course, depend on where you stand on the topic of universal genocide. Josh Brolin's Thanos does, however, have some pretty definitive swagger and charisma. His CG monstrosity has a lot of screen presence. It's too bad that the CG isn't always completely convincing though.

Because the bad guy is basically the main character (and protagonist), the entire narrative arc of the movie is almost the inverse of what you'd usually expect. The bad guys show up to create the dramatic stakes and sense of threat with aplomb, as expected. But instead of the rising action being a series of setbacks for the heroes with a climactic victory at the end, the heroes seem to come together and get everything mostly under control for the middle act of the movie, only to have it all go to shit when the climax arrives. Instead of the good guys losing in the end, the movie is framed as the bad guy wins in the end -- a subtle, but significant difference!

Thanos is the main character of this movie, and the dramatic and emotional arcs revolve around him.
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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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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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