This movie crouches with creativity until it starts draggin’. For its first two acts, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (B) grabs the brash brass with a swagger worthy of a first-ever Marvel movie; but by the end of the final reel, the labored adventure limps like the 25th Marvel film installment that it is. The film successfully grounds its characters in intriguing emotional arcs, even if some veteran actors are better suited at the drama than the newcomers. Acclaimed Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung skillfully portrays the patriarch of a dysfunctional family and is the catalyst for a story that transports viewers from San Francisco to Macau in a quest for generational redemption and supernatural accessories. Simu Liu is a stunner of a physical actor in the title role, but his emoting in dramatic sequences is hit or miss, as is that of Meng’er Zhang who plays his stoic sister. Faring much better are Awkwafina in true command of her comic relief love interest sidekick role (leading man Liu is far more natural in moments of levity opposite her) and Michelle Yeoh who ups her “aunty” with dramatic and martial arts choreography skills. The film is an origin story in reverse, and the opening U.S. sequences with casual comedy and an outstanding extended fight aboard a runaway bus eclipse some otherwise deft world building to come in the Asian environment of underground fight clubs, shape-shifting bamboo mazes and enchanted villages with a menagerie of CGI beasts. Other than a glorious battle aboard skyscraper scaffolding, the events abroad do not measure up to the story and tone captured stateside. The film is chock full of interesting ideas but ultimately overstuffed in its endless parade of finales. It’s mostly highly entertaining even if the front is more of a kick than the remaining thrust.
This reboot of a cult comic book ensemble film is distinguished by a parade of sensational casting and visual choices. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (A-) is a splattery spectacular madcap adventure with rousing action, vivid effects, ribald humor and idiosyncratic characters. Although its violence is not for the faint of heart, Gunn’s film is tonally and thematically one of the most winning DC Comics adaptations yet. The story revolves around the government sending the world’s most dangerous supervillains including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena) Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) to a remote, enemy-infused island for a search-and-destroy mission related to a science conspiracy. Interlaced into the propulsive plot is a menagerie of exquisite weaponry, human/animal hybrids, throwaway gags, witty asides and just about any treasures Gunn can bury in the cartoonish carnage. It’s a rollicking ride with Robbie again a delightful standout and Melchior a winning find as a pied piper of both CGI rodents and some surprisingly emotional moments. Add in an anthropomorphic shark, stunning stunts and an epic showdown finale, and many will agree Gunn has assembled one helluva Squad.
The ambition and creativity its original director intended before a family tragedy prompted him to eject from the helm of his 2017 version of his film are now on full display, as are the material’s flaws, in the 2021 remix of the DC superhero origins movie Zack Snyder’s Justice League (B). Told in six acts like a binge series in four-hour film form (the even numbered sections are best, by the way), this desaturated operatic opus reconstructs and recontextualizes the story of how Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman unite to bring back Superman and defeat an intergalactic villain. The R-rated reshuffling puts more focus and pathos on some of the younger cast members, Ray Fisher as Cyborg and Ezra Miller as The Flash, yielding some freshness and fun amidst a rather epic canvas of reliable action film favorites. Most of the visual effects are glorious, some downright mythical, and there are some pretty compelling action set pieces even though the risks seem low with this breed of formidable fighters running the table. The solemn film’s zigzagging epilogue feels like a dozen plot threads in search of a next franchise. Overall the additional world building, newly rousing score and compelling clarifications don’t adequately make up for for a bifurcated focus and sometimes disjointed narrative that bogs down some of its subplots; but ultimately too much of a good thing is so much better than not enough of a mediocre one.
For those who believe “there can be only one” in immortals movies (thanks, Highlander!), a new super-heroic quintet has arrived to demonstrate that long-living mercenaries come in multiples. These world-weary soldiers of particular fortune with powers including regenerative healing abilities get spectacular spotlight in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard (B+), a successful new action/fantasy film chronicling an unlikely revenge mission. Charlize Theron is in glorious badass mode with KiKi Layne in fine form as her paramilitary protégé. The sterling ensemble including Mattias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor is all up for the task. The fight choreography is superb in a series of riveting action sequences. Surprising is how moving the quieter scenes are depicting the deep bonds between these destiny-bound misfits including suffering throughout the ages. The film teaches some tough lessons of faith and fortitude. The graphic novel-inspired storyline and contemporary Dustin O’Halloran/Hauschka score are propulsive. Credit Prince-Bythewood for commandeering an energetic globetrotting enterprise with hope for a new action franchise springing eternal.
If you’re seeking a summer chore to catch up on, look no further than Simon Kinberg’s DarkPhoenix (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.
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.