Here’s a heroic hot take: It took 21 Marvel Cinematic Universe films for the creators to accomplish the hat trick of making it all not look so damn hard. Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s easy, breezy entertainment Captain Marvel (B+) places its plum protagonist in a hybrid mystery/prequel set in the ‘90s, and it reveals its plot and characters with leisurely delight and a stunning lack of urgency. The easygoing ensemble includes Brie Larsen being cool and collected in the title role, a special effects de-aged Samuel L. Jackson as ultra-chill Young Nick Fury, Ben Mendelsohn as a funny and super casual alien menace and a fetching feline stowaway low-key stealing its sequences. Aerial dogfighting, mind bending, light speeding and urban outrunning its way into the beloved comic book franchise, the movie builds atmosphere and drama without Thor sledgehammering or strange doctoring into too much needless complexity. The unfussy story: find yourself, find a secret charged object and set the stage for saving the universe. Plus it’s fairly woke in the casting and character departments. Mawkish supporting performances by Jude Law and Annette Bening are thankfully eclipsed by the nifty grunge-era songbook, splendid visuals and generous helpings of heart (Lashana Lynch and Akira Akbar are wonderfully warm as the captain’s surrogate family). The cast and crew clearly worked hard on this one, and it’s nice they put on a show without being so showy.
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I suppose you can’t make too much of a Marvel-ous mountain out of an ant hill. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp (C) is an exercise in low-stakes water treading, with a few clever miniaturization sight gags and funny throwaway jokes from Paul Rudd and Michael Peña to punctuate the perfunctory proceedings. Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly are a bore as the father-daughter scientist team in what becomes a primary subplot. Reed aims for casual cool with a protagonist who’s not particularly smart or engaged, and the director’s resultant product is a pretty disposable entry into this universe of superheroes. Average effects, villains and action sequences seal the fate of a film that peaks after the fanfare opening with some nifty ways the hero is filling time during house arrest. Any of them would have made more interesting activities than sitting through this ho-hum film.
Disney and Marvel pull off a friendly merger, a team retreat and a shocking spinoff in the perfectly adequate but unremarkable Avengers: Infinity War (C+) directed by Anthony and Joe Russo. The Avengers team of superheroes works with the Guardians of the Galaxy in an attempt to thwart baddie Thanos (a solid Josh Brolin under all those prosthetics) from amassing all the Infinity Stones. There’s fun banter of one-upmanship between Chris Hemsworth’s Thor and Chris Pratt’s Starlord and a solid running joke about Rocket Racoon’s species, but the plot and action sequences are a long uneven slog. Many characters are missing in action. We get far too little Black Panther, for instance. It all feels more like corporate synergy than sensational.
Writer/director Ryan Coogler’s entry into the Marvel franchise, Black Panther (B+), is a regal rouser with a superhero who also presides as monarch of a fictional secret African nation. Chadwick Boseman is dashing as the lead in the globetrotting film set largely in his high-tech palace city, but (like Thor) he’s often upstaged by a moody, Machiavellian villain, played with swagger by Coogler muse Michael B. Jordan. A supporting cast including Lupita Nyong’o, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker brings pluck to the proceedings, but the best actors in the bunch are Winston Duke as a reluctant warrior and Letitia Wright as the king’s Q-like kid sis. The film takes a while to accelerate into the throne room barn burner it becomes, but once it generates steam, there’s a deliciously delirious set of showdowns in Korean crime dens, atop waterfall cliffs, in battle meadows and aboard Tron-like light rail tunnels. It’s a vibrant adventure and a morally urgent political parable that delivers on a variety of levels.
It’s a “Hela” family reunion as Thor and Loki meet their long lost sinister sister in Taiki Waititi’s anything-goes Marvel movie Thor: Ragnarok (B-). The director’s casual humor and electric interplanetary aesthetic channeling Flash Gordon make for a much-needed change of pace after the solemn second film in this trilogy. But it’s all a bit fussy and cluttered to distract from a rather one-note protagonist. To his credit, Chris Hemsworth does get to flex some comedic chops, balancing out the scenery-chewing sequences featuring Cate Blanchett. Lugubrious back stories get in the way of the central plot, but flourishes such as an Incredible Hulk parade, a flamboyant politico played by Jeff Goldblum and a recurring gag of botched entrances and exits keep it all breezy. I wish the director had been as clever with his editing.
Fall is coming! The first two episodes of a new Marvel TV series, presented in IMAX prior to release on ABC, Inhumans (B-) is a fairly formulaic but mostly well executed comic book adaptation of a royal espionage action drama, as realized by director Roel Reiné. As a baddie leading a coup on a secret city on earth’s moon, Iwan Rheon is a forceful presence and eclipses all other actors. Less successful is Anson Mount as his brother the king, ostensibly the protagonist. He manages a vacant performance of questionable facial expressions while mute. As his wife Medusa (so named for her supernatural serpentine locks), Serinda Swan is commanding. Most of the titular band of mutants are separated during this mega-episode, so it’s not completely clear how their camaraderie will click in the long term. But the creativity of the source material carries the day in a brisk and bright tale of intrigue. The cliffhanger sets a pretty good stage for events ahead.
Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming (B+) marks the superhero’s seventh on-screen adventure (as played by Tom Holland, he most recently had a minor but memorable role in Captain America: Civil War) and his first standalone Marvel movie, with small bits by a quintet of actors popularized in other universe franchise series. Thankfully this third reboot of the series eschews the origin story, spider bites and uncle tragedy and simply lets Peter Parker be a regular high school kid with an extraordinary extracurricular life. Tom Holland is superb as the awkward arachnolescent, and the film’s best sequences show him fumble through the stickiness of growing up. Following other roles in the bird and bat family, Michael Keaton is strong as villain Vulture, a salvage purveyor turned arms trafficker who assembles Avengers scraps into fancy new weapons. Watts is inventive with the teen scenes and largely successful on the action front (disaster sequences at Washington Monument, aboard a Staten Island Ferry and at Coney Island are believable). The stakes seemed a bit smaller than the usual Marvel epic, but the characters reveal themselves nicely. Robert Downey, Jr. is fun as mentor/impresario Tony Stark, and Jacob Batalon is a delight as sidekick Ned. Effective storytelling and upbeat, compelling characters continue the Marvel winning streak.
Told in multicolor hues that would make a frappuccino unicorn whinny and packed to the gills with gee-whiz gadgetry, action and laughter, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (B+) is most successful when it examines the unconventional family dynamics of Marvel’s outer space superheroes. With baby on board (Groot, that is, and his highjinks are precious), the Guardians’ shipmates encounter Peter’s father and Gamora’s sister, among assorted new characters, and must reflect on their place in the universe. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and Dave Bautista display natural chemistry and charm. It’s like a Corleone saga with blasters and dick jokes. The new planets and plot lines are full of intrigue, and the dialogue is witty and wise. It’s an early summer movie that delivers the goods.
Benedict Cumberbatch casts one helluva spell as an intellectual, cerebral superhero with the ability to shape-shift his surroundings in Scott Derrickson’s Doctor Strange (B), a mostly engaging entry into the Marvel multiverse. The title character is an arrogant surgeon who gets his comeuppance in a crushing car accident and subsequently turns to mystical arts in an effort to heal. Cumberbatch is an unlikely protagonist, but he’s witty, literate and believable in a world in which the supernatural stakes mount mightily. Like Tony Stark/Ironman, his smarminess and smarts with science help his journey take flight. Derrickson cribs from Christopher Nolan a bit too much with secret societies of Asian warriors and Inception style city bending, but the overall vibe is cunning and imaginative. If anything the pace could have been picked up in Kundun style monastery sequences. The effects of hopping out of one’s body make for some giddy multitasking fight sequences, and the hero’s CGI cape should win best supporting costume. Tilda Swinton commands her every mesmerizing sequence as a trippy bald sorceress in a mustard-colored frock. Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor don’t get much to do as an ER doctor and fellow warrior, respectively; and Mads Mikkelsen is menacing as a baddie who looks like he just finished a bender at the discotheque. But it’s really the casting of the central role that’s the coup de grace of this time and space oddity.
See! Gee! Aye! There’s lots of razzle dazzle effects on view in Bryan Singer’s pre-fab spectacle X-Men: Apocalypse (C), but there’s very little of interest in terms of character or story. In what seems to be an endless multiyear slog of filmed origins, this installment introduces us to the beginnings of Cyclops and Storm. What next, Kitty Pride: How I Got My Stripes, Parts 1-3? The plot of this sluggish sixth entry hangs loosely on the earth-cleanding machinations of a resurrected Egyptian mutant played by Oscar Isaac pancaked under blue makeup and poor writing. The film is all over the map: when Evan Peters gets to freeze time as Quicksilver, it’s exhilarating; but when director Singer stretches time for an endless showdown involving Michael Fassbender’s Magneto extracting metal from the soil for a full reel, it’s just tedious. Jennifer Lawrence gets the most screen time, almost by default. Yay, paycheck! The lack of clear focus or central protagonist doesn’t give you much to root for. It’s the kind of water-treading CGI throwaway that neither embarrasses not delights. It’s not the end of the world or anything, but it’s a rather tepid start to the summer movie season.
Now this is a heist! Anthony and Joe Russo ostensibly entered the picture with the directing gig for a third Captain America film, but they have actually stolen the show by helming the third, most ambitious Avengers movie. Their Captain America: Civil War (A) is full of delightful surprises, spending its first hour tracing geopolitical machinations and espionage as the embattled heroes contemplate a global accords to put self-controls on their unbridled power. The film explores the consequences of compromise, the bounds of brotherhood and the limits of vengeance in what crescendos to some of the most artful fight choreography and breakneck stunt work to have been committed to screen in a major superhero film. To both Marvel stalwarts and casual fans alike, there is ample accessibility into the multilayered narrative. There are also enough great actors stuffed into the epic to populate an Altman film or a ’70s disaster ensemble. Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Macke are among the most impressive veterans; and Tom Holland and Chadwick Boseman add to the embarrassment of riches as an amusing Spider-Man and noble Black Panther, respectively, who become embroiled in the splinter cells of the saga. The movie is very entertaining when it goes full fan-boy: I really liked the enthusiasm Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) embodies in meeting Chris Evans’ Captain America. If there’s any complaint, it’s the blandness of Evans’ snoozy character across the equivalent of two trilogies (Did I miss Captain America: The Summer Siesta?). The cap’n may be the wrong guy to match wits with the wry hybrid who is half Tony Stark/half Iron Man. But everything comes together so well: I nearly expected a full-cast singalong to an Aimee Mann song. Overall, there’s a natural elegance and specificity to each heroes’ personal powers as they jigsaw their way into the nooks and crannies of their physical and emotional brinkmanship. By the time they’ve been battered and bewildered by the events of the Russo Brothers’ deft spectacle, they will convince you that preserving unswerving power for good is worth the fight. It’s a comic book caper on the surface with rousing rumbles, but its grace and gravitas run more than spandex deep.