If you’re seeking a summer chore to catch up on, look no further than Simon Kinberg’s Dark Phoenix (C-), the twelfth and promised final film in 20th Century Fox’s Marvel X-Men series. It is a touch below average in nearly every respect, bringing back some familiar characters from the prequel-era timeline (thank goodness for Michael Fassbender) with not much to do while putting an uninspired Sophie Turner as Jean Grey front and center. She is joined by Jessica Chastain as a one-note shape-shifting alien named Vuk, about whom I didn’t give a flying one. Weak special effects, a rehash story of the series’ third outing and virtually no tension or humor cause this X to mark the spot when this long-running franchise whimpered away from relevance.
A fun hybrid of Big and The Goonies, the DC Universe gets a lively dose of life and levity with the introduction of David Sandberg’s Shazam! (B). The film’s teen protagonist is grappling with new powers which cause him to toggle back and forth between awkward adolescence and transforming into a full-fledged adult superhero just as he joins a foster family with a bunch of precocious step-siblings. Asher Angel and Zachary Levi are superb and funny as the boy and his adult alter ego, respectively, and the film’s family includes Jack Dylan Graser as a cunning sidekick and Cooper Andrews as a lovable lug of a foster dad. The movie is aimed squarely at a family audience, despite a few early scares courtesy of Mark Strong’s viciously one-note villain and a bunch of beguiling CGI monsters. It’s a touch overlong, but the comedy, action and surprises pile high with fairly consistent success, and there are even a few moments of genuinely moving domestic drama. The movie creates characters for whom the audience can truly cheer in an environment largely well imagined. Expect the origin stories explored here to bring further marvels to DC.
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.
The DC universe’s fishing expedition for a worthwhile film remains an ongoing upstream journey. James Wan’s foray into surf and turf sci-fi fantasy Aquaman (C+) has all the subtlety of a Super Bowl commercial, with either a tidal wave of action as bait or a dreamboat dilf as its siren call to adult moviegoers over the age of 13. Awash in largely inconsistent or indifferent special effects, the film is basically a palace intrigue barnburner between Jason Mamoa as the quip-happy mer-man hero versus Patrick Wilson as the bland opposing heir to the throne of Atlantis. It’s all underwritten, overlong and underwhelming but not without its occasional charms (although the flowing underwater hair effect is not one of them). Kudos to Nicole Kidman for classing up the joint. Otherwise it’s lots of inconsequential action, some akin to wrestling matches. If the film were a dish at a restaurant, it would ironically need more salt.
There’s a whole new convention for comic book aficionados, and it arrives in the form of a brilliantly conceived and rendered animation style and congregation of fringe superheroes. Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (B) is a triumph of visuals and tone, capturing comic book aesthetic and tongue in cheek escapism. The story sputters out a bit midway amidst the kaleidoscopic New York set pieces, layered characters with text bursts and eye-popping swirls and swatches of dimensional color. The inclusive film explores a multiverse of Spider-Man personas converging, which gives us a half African-American/half Puerto Rican protagonist, female fighter, film noir hero and anime Spidey in the mix for confrontation with audacious baddies. Shameik Moore, Jake Johnston, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Nicolas Cage are among the voice talents. It’s fun for both purists and first-timers to the arachni-phile adventurer pantheon with an awesome message true to the late Stan Lee’s vision that everyone can be a hero.
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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.
The novelty is gone but the jokes spring eternal in David Leitch’s sarcastic superhero sequel Deadpool 2 (B-). Ryan Reynolds is again charismatic but keeps company with some pretty average associates in this low-stakes installment. Encounters with some characters in the X-Men and X-Force orbit and stories about time travel, paternal instincts and doing hard time all mutate in a plot both threadbare and overstuffed. It’s vulgar, fun and watchable but a pale follow-up to its predecessor. The comedy is better than the action, and the whole meta enterprise was better the first time around. See if for the in-jokes and knowing nods to sequel-dom.
Review of the first Deadpool here.
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.
All the lasers and lassos and Aquaman kin can’t put this comic book franchise together again. Studio dictates, glimmers of personality from its female characters and slight moments of inspiration from temporary script doctor Joss Whedon are the only redeemable qualities of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (C), more a series course correction than standalone story of interest. After confusing the motivations of cherished DC Universe icons and draining them of literal color in the previous installment, there’s a bit more shine on this apple, although it’s still kinda rotten. The plot, centering on alien supervillain Steppenwolf who wields three dangerous cosmic cubes that would be the envy of Q*bert and Coily, is superfluous to getting the comic book ensemble together to fight him (great, another origin story with a bass-voiced CGI antagonist!) Jason Momoa is brash but hardly makes a splash, his superhero of the seas largely sidelined in battle. The miscast Ezra Miller’s fast-moving Flash is relegated to awkward comic relief. Ray Fisher as Cyborg is mainly seen fussing around with technology and might as well be mute, since he has so few lines. At least the luminous Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman improves every sequence she is in, and Amy Adams’s Lois Lane shows some signs of life in an extended cameo. Ben Affleck sleepwalks through his role as Batman, leaving a hollow core in the protagonist circle. So we are left with watching contemplations of re-animating Henry Cavill’s Superman and witnessing the super troop fight a bento box toting baddie and his army of insects for a very long final act. The best two sequences in the entire film are in the final credits. Ultimately this anemic entry into the DC canon wins just a little simply for stopping the hemorrhaging.
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.