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.
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.
Director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot lasso a true kickstart to the summer movie season with grit and girlpower, spunk and splendor in the satisfying superhero movie Wonder Woman (B+). After an origin story prologue on Amazon island where warrior Diana grows up with a peacekeeping destiny and mentorship from Robin Wright, the narrative thrusts to Europe, where our heroine marshals a team of ragtag ruffians to infiltrate WWI enemies and attempt to thwart a bunch of baddies and their chemical weapons plot. Jenkins proves masterful in taking us to tentpole territory with a reverent tone, pulpy production values and motivated action. Gadot is a delight as a woman with singular purpose and a refreshing lack of irony. Chris Pine is superb as her foil, an American spy who answers her questions about the nuances of men’s modern warcraft and anatomy. Mostly, it’s old-fashioned adventure building on the spirit of the original Captain America or The Rocketeer, with moments of comedy in London a most enjoyable surprise. For thrills and good-natured fun, this is a high point for the otherwise murky D.C. comics cinematic universe and the antidote for and female-driven counterpoint to Michael Bay style phone-’em-in summer blockbuster machinations.