The cure for superhero fatigue? Cut tie-ins to extraneous characters and multiverses of quantum physics straining credulity, focus on an outsider of humble roots, tell an origin story we haven’t seen before and raise the stakes for a showdown involving characters we enjoy. Basically do what Ángel Manuel Soto’s does in Blue Beetle (B+)! Buoyed by Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña as the movie’s charismatic protagonist, Soto tells the story of a working class Mexican-American family in the fictional Palmera City facing a supernatural shock to the system that jettisons them into life as DC Universe warriors. The film is consistently engaging with escalating threats and joyful action abounding. The hero’s family customs and worldview are central to the film’s successful audience engagement, with George Lopez and Belissa Escobedo as comic relief highlights in his close-knit Latino family. Only Susan Sarandon misses the mark with an underdeveloped role as a ruthless baddie. The adventure overstays its welcome a bit, but novel and nostalgic flourishes keep the film fairly fresh. Bobby Krlic’s symphonic score sets a manic mood, and the special effects are competent enough to populate a believable world. Families will enjoy seeing a multigenerational group of likable characters rise to the occasion.
A speed trap of half-baked time travel comedy and junky action sequences surrounding a phantom zone menace, Andrés Muschietti’s The Flash (C) runs around in more circles than a Lazy Susan dishing out a smorgasbord of DC multiverse morsels with limited entertainment value. At the center of this carousel of excess are two performances by Ezra Miller, and a little of this eccentric actor goes a long way. Reversing time to save his mom’s life, the titular sprinting action hero opens up portals of paradox that produce a doubting doppelgänger plus an encounter with an underused original cinematic Batman Michael Keaton, who along with Sasha Calle as Supergirl must battle Michael Shannon’s General Zod, whose character is given virtually nothing to do. Despite some funny opening moments involving slow cooking and an aerial ballet of super saving, the schtick gets old fast, and the retread plot lines give way to a bitter after-haste taste. The visual effects are uniformly second-rate, and the two quipping Barrys’ vaudeville act collapses and careens toward a desperate parade of cameos in the final reel. There are more guest stars and CGI characters than a caravan to The Love Boat by way of The Polar Express could accommodate. Muschietti eschews solemnity for all-out stoner comedy, and perhaps, for some, even a glimmer of fun in the generally grim DC Universe can feel like finding renewed life in the fast lane.
Writer/director James Gunn completes his trilogy of space-age strays, agile action, wily wisecracks and nifty needle drops with a wondrous and emotionally resonant finale in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (A-). Chris Pratt plumbs deeper emotions fighting the loss of his great romance in this go-round as the ensemble endeavors to save their injured and intubated collaborator Rocket Raccoon by infiltrating a series of treacherous lairs. This leaves a game Dave Bautista, Karen Gillian and Pom Klementieff to carry much of the franchise’s incredible comedy, and they get some wonderful zingers. The film is grimmer and more violent than past outings as it tells Rocket’s onerous origin story and terror at the hands of a truly diabolical villain memorably played by Chukwudi Iwuji. The world building and creature effects are first-rate, and the movie builds to a resonant final act. This epic rescues Marvel from its doldrums, but given its auteur has left to shepherd the DC universe, more greatness lies in store for the latter.
Sometimes a comic book movie can simply be a fun adventure, and the latest DC Universe installment, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods (B) is just that, a rollicking escape. The funny Zachary Levi leads a Philadelphia posse of scrappy superheroes harboring a collective secret: They are actually teenage foster children who can transform into caped crusaders in a snap. The story doesn’t really plumb the full depth of the family trauma and psychological implications inherent in the premise. but it plunges head-first into a mythological action barnburner with the teens fighting titans. The moviemakers disguise their earnestness with wry, throwaway humor especially via teen actor Jack Dylan Grazer, but they squander some chances to dial up the camp value of Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu as daughters of Atlas. There are long passages with pretty elaborate special effects, evocative of the original Ghostbusters with mixes of laughs and thrills packed into showdowns on expansive streets. Opportunities about to root for the underdogs. The film is largely family friendly and keeps enough plates spinning to nourish viewers for its duration.
Life’s rich pageant unfurls in Afrofuturistic splendor as gifted director/co-writer Ryan Coogler showcases a mythological superhero swashbuckler that towers over recent installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (A-) accomplishes three simultaneous goals: honoring the legacy of the late Chadwick Boseman and his character as the denizens of the fictional Wakanda grieve the loss of a hero and protector, setting up an absorbing new conflict between nations and sharpening some critical characters on the precipice of critical leadership. Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright and Lupita Nyong’o lend grace and gravitas as the women delivering emotional and intellectual superpowers to hold their kingdom together. The introduction of a new threat in the form of an underwater world called Talokan led by charismatic mer-man Namor, played brilliantly by Tenoch Huerta, advances the plotting and political intrigue. Although a little bloated in run time, Coogler’s sequel properly nourishes its characters and dazzles with wondrous world building. The below-the-line crafts are flawless, with Ruth Carter’s gorgeously ornate costumes again a standout. In many ways the film is an improvement on its predecessor with motivated action and stunts and weighty consequences. It is an epic worthy of the Marvel monicker.
Director Taika Waititi’s building blocks for his latest Marvel entry include three parts Airplane! style quips and playful pratfalls, three parts romantic comedy and four parts solemn action. It’s a wonder Thor: Love and Thunder (B-) works as well as it does in spurts even though it doesn’t really hang together in a cohesive way. Chris Hemsworth is amusing and swashbuckling as the central hero, although there’s never any real action stakes as he and colleagues march through perfunctory episodes. This installment is largely about the god of thunder regaining his emotional mojo. Natalie Portman returns as a love interest with new powers and an occasionally resonant backstory; she’s good enough to warrant a bit more. As new villain Gorr The God Butcher, Christian Bale is acting in a whole different universe, menacing and maniacal under macabre prosthetics. There’s also an amusing series of sequences involving a convention of deities. The film is often a clever lark, largely inconsequential and a missed opportunity for even more fearless and frolicking fun. This one doesn’t throw down the gauntlet with quite the precision or focus necessary.
The logline for Marvel’s latest film probably wasn’t “Watch vast numbers of various versions of an underwritten sorcerer character move through time and space to stop a fellow spell caster from doing infinitely uninteresting things,” but if that were the pitch, the filmmakers nailed it. Alas Sam Raimi’s Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (D+) feels like a contractual dirge in every way, from Benedict Cumberbatch’s lifeless lead performance to uninspired sidekicks to a convoluted plot and antagonist. The moribund blend of studio superhero franchise and bursts of horror elements is uneasy and does neither genre much service. The visual effects are pedestrian; in fact it may be one of the least aesthetically pleasing films in the film series. Little is done with some minor cameos which could have spiced up the mix. The lead character simply goes through the motions, ties up some loose ends from the WandaVision TV series and embarks on a few chases with jump scares. Even with all the possibilities of sly magic and universe hopping, it’s a creative low point for a series generally more inspired than this.
A contemporary tale of political intrigue, a serial crime spree mystery and a noirish adaptation of comic book legend blend spectacularly in The Batman (A), assuredly directed by Matt Reeves. Similar in style and tone to Seven and L.A. Confidential, with twisty themes and commentary on urban decay and perverse forms of achieving justice, this superhero drama is dead serious to the core. This bacchanal of cinematic delights includes transfixing production design, purposeful action, wondrous gadgetry, stunning cinematography and a triumphant score to herald the latest movie series epoch with Robert Pattinson as a brave and brooding Batman/Bruce Wayne. A political assassination sets the dense narrative into motion, with Pattinson’s protagonist juggling several layers of intrigue to cut through corruption and discover unsettling truths. No mere retelling of the origin story, this installment charts unconventional courses into unexpected places. Pattinson proves to be a grim and winning hero with impeccable acting ability. Zoë Kravitz as an avenging spy Cat Woman, Paul Dano as a cunning crackpot Riddler and Colin Farrell (unrecognizable under makeup) as an old-school gangster Penguin all lend dynamic supporting turns, and Jeffrey Wright and John Turturro are also wonderful in less showy ensemble roles. Reeves creates a lived-in universe of pulpy nightclubs, sprawling cathedrals, sinister lairs and sky-high vistas for epic action sequences and showdowns and continuously raises the stakes of his widescreen canvas. Many topical themes are unusually prescient, yet the stirring central storyline never falters. The sheer notion at all points that anything could happen makes it continually watchable despite a considerable running time. This sets a new high watermark for the genre and is sure to thrill both hardcore fans and discerning general movie audiences who don’t have to know backstory to enjoy a propulsive path forward.
For a superhero series marked by continuous reboots, it’s only appropriate the latest entry is all about second chances. Spider-Man: No Way Home (B+) is the third in the arch directed by Jon Watts, and if Sam Raimi’s first trilogy sputtered in its third incarnation and Marc Webb’s trilogy two didn’t even eek out a third film, this installment manages to soar more than ever the third time around. Tom Holland is exceedingly charming and relatable in the titular role and joined again by a wry Zendaya and an amusing Jacob Batalon as his high school classmates. After his secret identity is revealed, Holland’s Peter Parker seeks out the multiverse magic of Dr. Strange (a droll Benedict Cumberbatch), and a cabinet of curiosities is flung open including some past villains. The film has a fresh and frenetic quality with a winning brand of humor and elaborate action sequences to please the Marvel Universe faithful. There’s a Back to the Future meets Inception quality to this entry, with insider humor and twisty timelines lacing this magnificent movie mixtape. More sentimental and more epic in scope than any of the live action Spider-Man films before it, this one rewards both casual and fanatic viewers with blissful bombast and heart.
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.