Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

   Director: Peyton Reed  With: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, & Randall Park.  Release: Jul 6, 2018 PG-13. 1 hr. 58 min. 

Director: Peyton Reed
With: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas, Michael Peña, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Laurence Fishburne, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judy Greer, Tip. “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder Forston, & Randall Park. 
Release: Jul 6, 2018
PG-13. 1 hr. 58 min. 

 

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is that kind of chapter in the Marvel cinematic universe that buckles underneath the excellence of the previous entree, it’s like reading a great book that has a fantastic chapter followed up by one that is fun, satisfying, but not near as superb as the one you just read. 

Once again directed by Peyton Reed, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is a film that feels a bit mediocre in more ways than one, but not in a bad way. The film, written by a team of five writers, takes place about two years removed from the events of the Russo Brothers’ “Captain America: Civil War.” Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) made a plea deal to take part in a two year sentenced house arrest, followed up by three years of probation, and he’s nearing his last three days of sentencing until he finds himself having nightmares from his time in the subatomic realm, but these dreams feel too real. 

He reaches out to Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) to explain this to him, hours later, he is kidnapped by Hope (Evangeline Lilly), because this father and daughter duo have been building a machine to take them to the quantum realm, believing that Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer; Hank’s wife and Hope’s mom) may still be alive. 

It’s a simple mission that needs the assistance of Scott’s (Paul Rudd) hypothetical quantum entanglement with her from the quantum realm, but their plan’s soon get foiled by this white hooded and fissuring figure known as Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen). She’s a woman who’s suffered the sins of Hank’s (Michael Douglas) past, being a product of a father’s failed experiment that has led to her becoming a molecularly faltered woman that continuously glitches between matter, making her someone that can walk through any wall and avoid any attack. This condition also leaves her in constant pain though, forcing her to reach out for help, something that also comes from Hank’s (Michael Douglas) past mistakes. 

You would think the film would build an emotional lesson around that, but instead, the story revolves around a multitude of amusing subplots and a sappy-ish emotional heft between Scott (Paul Rudd) and his daughter, Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). It picks up off that father-daughter dynamic we saw in “Ant-Man,” something we don’t see in any of the other Marvel movies, and begins to zero in on the flawed heroism of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). Dealing with this revolving door of consequences for his actions, tearing him between the two worlds of fatherhood and vigilantism. 

He never seems to be able to the right thing without alienating his family or his friends or the woman he wants to partner with on these adventures as Ant-Man. He’s continuously reminded of these shortcomings, staying out of trouble to keep his daughter in his life, but exiling his past life and friends in exchange. It’s a complex moral dilemma, one that we rarely see in film’s apart of the MCU, but the film almost seems to overlook the enticeable potential of the emotion surrounding this internal character dynamic, choosing to satisfy audiences without providing something worth remembering. 

The film does subvert the macho-man mentality of superhero movies though, allowing the teamwork between these two heroes to become a reliable weapon. Never allowing that one-person show cliche to take hold, the "Ant-Man and the Wasp" are a team that relies on teamwork, something surprisingly rare to see in comic book filmography, almost as unusual as the amount of significance giving to the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly).

Spending a lot of time developing, focusing, and centralizing the story and the action around Hope (Evangeline Lilly). Reed exhumes as much creative choreography he can from the wings of the Wasp, disappearing and reappearing with fury and a whole lot of female badassery. We rarely get to see these displays of female super-strength, with them sporadically occurring in films like "Iron Man 2" and "Avengers." Luckily, "Thor; Ragnarok" and "Black Panther" have embraced that female empowerment, carrying it over into newer films such as this one. 

She almost steals the show with her displays of action, but the gang of assisting comedic characters makes that a hard role to earn, as the group of three ex-cons, has founded their own security company, ironically trademarked as “X-Con.” These neurotic characters share a fair amount of screenplay, providing as much comedic relief as they can, not that the screenplay is dourly in need of more humor. Nonetheless, the security team of Kurt (David Dastmalchian), Dave (T.I.), and Luis (Michael Peña) provide the films funniest moments with Peña being responsible for more than the other two goofballs, as predicted. 

The gang of characters surrounding our triplet of heroes doesn't stop there, you can also find the well-meaning ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer), the affable husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), the adorably innocent Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), a smug weapons dealer with a wicked southern accent depicted by Walton Goggins, of course, and there’s also the clueless FBI agent, Woo (Randall Park), who is amusingly jealous of the charisma displayed by Scott (Paul Rudd). All of these characters assist in formulating a group of subplots that struggle to reside together coherently, but they never become something distracting or worth denouncing, more of a run of the mill kind of scenario. 

The same could be said for Dante Spinotti’s cinematographer which, unlike the previous film, seems to have no individuality. Never standing out or making its voice heard, instead, it blends into the foreground, becoming reliant on well-handled set pieces and a vast amount of size gags, which seem to always get a chuckle or two out of me. 

Reed has a lot of great moments in his direction of the film, specifically in his helming of the movies emotional subtext, something that if focused more upon, could have made the film far better than your above mediocre superhero film. It relies on that relief of enjoyment you desire after seeing a mature and darkened MCU film such as "Avengers: Infinity War." “Ant-Man and the Wasp” struggles with that bad timing more than it should. Not to mention, a complete lack of emotional heft that, like “Thor: Ragnarok,” is set up to be paid off near the film’s finale, but these moments are shrunk down to size before they become the big hero that the movie so desperately needs. 

If you consider the MCU as a long-running, feature-length, television series that premieres at the movie theater, then you can think of “Ant-Man and the Wasp” as that follow up episode to the mid-season finale. Attempting to pull everyone back into the story, calming the waters so that you can return to your regularly scheduled programming until the Mad Titan makes his next appearance. There’s nothing obscene or egregiously wrong with “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” it’s following up a cinematic event of epic portions, providing a small but effective entree into this cinematic universe of superheroes, it's hard to blame the underdog for not outperforming the favorite. 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

   Director: Bryan Singer With: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Mark Camacho, Ian McKellen, & Patrick Stewart. Release: May 23, 2014 PG-13. 2 hr. 12 min. 

Director: Bryan Singer
With: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Anna Paquin, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Shawn Ashmore, Omar Sy, Evan Peters, Josh Helman, Daniel Cudmore, Fan Bingbing, Adan Canto, Booboo Stewart, Mark Camacho, Ian McKellen, & Patrick Stewart.
Release: May 23, 2014
PG-13. 2 hr. 12 min. 

 

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is a grand finale to a spec of storytelling. Like that of “What If” or “Marvel: The End,” Marvel likes to look at it's universes as monuments of reality. They're spectacles of opera-like drama that can be torn down and restarted at will. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is the same event for 20th Century Fox’s cinematic universe of mutants, but the allegories for puberty, sexuality, and racism have all gone away.

This time around, the focus is climactic, set in the distant future in which shape-shifting and mutant absorbing Sentinels have launched a war upon mutantkind and the few groups of humanity that stand alongside them. Mutant versus all is the setting, but it's a war that hasn’t gone well for the evolved versions of humankind. Nearly wiped out, the benevolent Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and former foe Erik Lehnsherr (Ian McKellen) are left with no choice but to rewrite history. They gather a team of young mutants with familiar faces like Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and Kitty (Ellen Page) and new faces like Bishop (Omar Sy) and Blink (Fan Bingbing).

Needing someone who can heal at a constant rate, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is the only choice to make the trip. Sent back to 1973, Logan (Hugh Jackman) has to convince a younger and distraught Charles (James McAvoy) to reconcile with a younger Erik (Michael Fassbender) and stop Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) from assassinating Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage) whose death would send mankind on a fear mongered obsession to halt mutant kind from ever-evolving past them. It’s a mouthful of a story, but one that is handled with a surprising amount of consistency and emotional heft.

The best moments of the film is when we are allowed to glimpse into these heroes motives and resolves. Like that of the younger Charles (James McAvoy) whose losses have amounted to so much emotional grief that it has driven him to a drug obsession. It’s not an ordinary drug though, it's a type of medicine that Hank (Nicholas Hoult) manifested to allow Charles (James McAvoy) to walk, but his self-guilt and self-hatred consumes him too much. Always taking too much, so much that it dwindles his powers completely.

It’s an emotional subplot that carries his character to the film’s most captivating moments, one in which he looks into Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) mind to seek advice from himself in the future. In the process, he gains recognition of Logan’s (Hugh Jackman) pain, stating “I don’t want your suffering. I don’t want your future!” It’s a remarkably crafted scene that is carried by another captivating performance from James McAvoy that gives Patrick Stewart a run for his money.

Logan (Hugh Jackman) kind of fades into the background in an attentive manner. Though Hugh has another decent outing as the character, he carries the plot instead of himself, rarely given any moments in which his character grows. The writers (Simon Kinberg, Matthew Vaughn, and Jane Goldman) have so much on their plate that they forgot to give one of their most popular character any growth. We don’t learn more about him, but instead, see things happen to him. He grows to the same extent that the film’s runtime increases with every minute passed.

The massive array of character lends to a blend of worlds that is almost seamless. Bryan Singer carries this film with a remarkable outing as director. The visual can be spectacular at times, and the characters gain heft from the emotional conflicts they face. It’s like a lesser version of “Infinity War” in which the losses are felt, but are never earth-shattering. The camera remains quite colorful, and the seventies atmosphere gives the X-men a Watchmen-esque taste that evokes excitement. We lean into the screen, ready to be taken on a journey.

One of the most exciting moments of that journey is when we get to meet Quicksilver (Evan Peters). One half of the Maximoff twins (watch “Avengers: Age of Ultron” if this confuses you or read some comics, obviously), Quicksilver (Evan Peters) is a charismatic and charming individual that is given an magical sequence that has Jim Croce’s enchanting “Time in a Bottle” set as the background theme. He zooms past in slow motion, fabricating comedic slapstick set-ups, and saving his newly found friends. Singer earned a directional nod for me with this one scene, a tough act to follow up. Yet, he finds a way with both the bombastic finale and the snippets of action involving these frightening Sentinels in this worthy and grand culmination.  

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” is 20th Century Fox hitting that reboot button that opens up questions surrounding it's newest films, creating a rippling effect that can manifest more confusion than you would think. One example, does “Deadpool” take place in the same universe? Or is this like a comic book in which “X-Men: Days of Future Past” took place in the reality of Earth 616 and now the universe lives in the existence of Earth 821?

Either way, “X-Men: Days of Future Past” has a lot of stories to tell, and it handles all of them in a fair balance. Some fade into the background and arrive without impact, and the time traveling of it all can become a bit of a burden, but Singer’s return is met with emotional heft and a challenging narrative that is brought to life by superb performances and exciting direction. It may take awhile for it to sink in, but go read “Final Crisis” or “Flashpoint” and understand where these kinds of superhero stories stem from. It’s a lot to digest, but it's incredibly riveting nonetheless. It’s explosive, consequential, and tiring. Watching the Rogue cut of the film can be especially exhausting, but “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is still one of the best depictions of this world of mutants, if only there were some Avengers to back them up.

The Wolverine (2013)

   Director: James Mangold With: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, & Brian Tee. Release: July 26, 2013 PG-13. 2 hr. 6 min. 

Director: James Mangold
With: Hugh Jackman, Hiroyuki Sanada, Tao Okamoto, Rila Fukushima, Famke Janssen, Will Yun Lee, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Haruhiko Yamanouchi, & Brian Tee.
Release: July 26, 2013
PG-13. 2 hr. 6 min. 

 

James Mangold (“Walk The Line” & “3:10 to Yuma”) once stated, “In a way, Roger Ebert helped make 'The Wolverine.' 'Why should I care about this guy?” Mangold finally provides an answer to that inquiry that like Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” or Raimi’s “Spider-Man 1&2” gets to the heart of what makes the character memorable. Deconstructing the charisma and providing a resolve to the comic book legend that in accordance with a Japanese centric location crafts an isolated film that showcases the best and a bit of the worst of comic book movies. 

Slipping into the psychological territory of storytelling in which Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) immortality is challenged. He can feel pain and not be able to heal it away, the blood continues to pour, and the aches from the wounds of the past won't stop because the scars of his grief are not merely pulled back together by his mutation. Taking place months removed from the events of “X-Men: The Last Stand,” we see Logan (Hugh Jackman) as a long-haired and burly man that has taken a vow never to take another life. His grief and guilt for killing Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) have riddled him with emotionality, and after a drunken hunter shoots a large bear with a poison-tipped arrow, the bear rips his fellow friends to shreds. Logan (Hugh Jackman) hears their screams and goes to see if he can help and discovers the bear collapsed, he states “don’t make me do this” as the bear makes one last attempt to survive and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) places the beast out of his misery, breaking his promise to Jean (Famke Janssen). 

He then goes into to town, confronting the hunter in a bar. While there, he is joined by Yukio (Rila Fukushima), a young mutant with the ability to see people’s deaths before they happen. From there the story resembles Frank Miller and Chris Claremont’s “The Wolverine” comic from 1982, taking place in Japan in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is poised with the question: “do you want to live forever?” What if you could grow old and start a family, settle down, and live in peace? This topic becomes the focal point of our character as not only do we spend time getting to analyze these complexities that he's confronted by but Mangold crafts an action-centric thriller around the character as well. Allowing the character to push the story, instead of the other way around, Mangold provides an emotionally compelling look at the character that wouldn’t be followed up until 2017. 

Mark Bomback and Scott Frank are responsible for the screenplay given, and they even spend providing commentary on the atomic bomb dropping of Nagasaki in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) states “I was here when it happened.” Like that of an American soldier realizing that he may have been on the wrong side of a horrendous event, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) eventually has to figure out how to become the animalistic beast once more so that he can save the young Mariko (Tao Okamoto). In a spellbinding sequence that ends with Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) fighting off a greed driven father whose samurai abilities are unable to conquer the healing skills of the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). 

A climax that is far better than the actual final battle we receive in which a giant adamantium robot challenges our clawed hero, yes you heard that right. It’s like “Wonder Woman” in which the first two acts of the film are nearly perfect, and the final battle feels like a studio forcing a filmmaker to craft something for the masses that doesn’t correctly meld with the story being told. The digital animations aren’t exactly handled the best either, in which this giant samurai resembles something from a PS3 graphics card (at least it's updated from a PS1). 

The helming of this climax is handled well like the rest of the film, the action scenes from the first two acts are far superior though because they underline themselves with grit and emotion. We’re not just watching Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) swing his claws because it looks cool, but we’re providing reasons for him to do so which makes each puncture feel far more impactful. Mangold and his cinematographer, Ross Emery, give a very vibrant look that is digitalized but also can deliver portraits that resemble comic book panels at times. Some of the images are merely epic though, like that of a shirtless Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) standing in the moonlight as he fights a samurai in the rain. How does that not excite you? 

Marco Beltrami also provides a score that stands out more than most; it’s not the x-men overtones we’ve heard before, their far more subtle than that. Rarely overstepping its welcome, the score works better than past X-men scores because it carries the story, much like Hugh Jackman’s performance. He’s gritty, resolved, challenged, and emotionally captivating. His second best performance as the character in which Jackman’s iconic growls and screeches depict his animalistic tendencies, but Mangold’s added resolve to the character allows for Jackman to finally invest himself into the character in a far more resonating fashion. 

His fellow Japanese actors are overlooked far too often though, Hiroyuki Sanada is exceptional as the crazed father. He compels the viewer like a great villain in which you understand his reasoning, but despise him nonetheless (why wasn’t he the main antagonist again?) Tao Okamoto, and Rila Fukushima are outstanding as well and share genuine chemistry with Hugh. Both are charming and even have resonating emotional subplots attached to them, like that of Tao, a girl dealing with the expectations of a family that she continues to disappoint due to their selfish desires. Rila is a mutant whose ability is a curse like Logan’s (Hugh Jackman), seeing the death of everyone you meet. It takes a toll, much like the film’s story does when it hits you with punches that carry more weight to them than you’d expect. 

“I see you on your back, there’s blood everywhere, your holding your heart in your own hand.” It's lines like that one that after viewing the unofficial sequel begin to carry extra weight, as Logan (Hugh Jackman) no longer seems to be a character whose claws make him unique. He’s tortured, symbolized as a suffering man from those very claws that others confused as a gift instead of a burden. Yes, it’s a PG-13 rendering in which you don’t get the full effect sometimes, but inherent Eastwood characteristics in which Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) could care less if you like him or not carry the film to a particular poignancy. We’re watching the character evolve right before our eyes; I’m glad Mangold realized that Ebert was right. 
 

X-Men: First Class (2011)

   Director: Matthew Vaughn With: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, & Kevin Bacon.  Release: June 3, 2011 PG-13. 2 hr. 11 min. 

Director: Matthew Vaughn
With: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne, Jennifer Lawrence, January Jones, Nicholas Hoult, Oliver Platt, Jason Flemyng, Lucas Till, Edi Gathegi, & Kevin Bacon. 
Release: June 3, 2011
PG-13. 2 hr. 11 min. 

 

Relaunching the universe, “X-Men: First Class” analyzes the foundational building blocks of the mutant team of heroes. Beginning in 1944 Poland in which the young Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) anger surges his mutation to the surface as his parents are tragically taken away during the great tragedy known as the Holocaust. Ripping out Bryan Singer’s opening scene from “X-Men,” the beginning of the film lends to a dark tone for Erik (Michael Fassbender) in which his anguish is only driving force behind his mission. 

While on his mission for vengeance, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) walks onto the scene as someone who desires to reach out to other mutants and let them know they are not alone. Meeting Raven (Jennifer Lawrence) as a child in which he catches her trying to steal food and says “I knew I couldn't be the only one. We have plenty of food, take whatever you’d like. You don’t have to steal anymore, in fact, you never have to steal ever again.” 

It’s a Martin Luther King versus Malcolm X origins story in which their beginnings drive their ideologies in which Erik’s (Michael Fassbender) violent inception forces him to become a weapon, while Xavier (James McAvoy) has an origin of choice in which he chooses to become a beacon of hope for mutant kind and a guiding hand. A heartfelt start to our film that quickly turns into nothing but action, as our characters are met head-on by Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). A mutant whose can harness any energy and then reproject that energy onto others, Shaw (Kevin Bacon) wants to light the match that leads to the downfall of humankind and the rise of mutantkind.  His plan? He wants to persuade the Russian and United States world leaders towards the brink of nuclear war, a.k.a the Cuban missile crisis. 

With historical fact being surrounded by comic book lore, a C.I.A agent, Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), attempts to persuade her commanding officers to place their faith in the idea of fighting fire with fire. She urges her hire-ups to trust in Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) and the young team of mutants he brings together. The cadets involve Banshee (Caleb Landry Jones; a man who shouts), Havok (Lucas Till; Cyclops older brother who projects the same concussive beams outside of his body), and Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult; a man with crazy feet who eventually mutates into a blue furball beast). 

All of these mutants are given enough time to become recognizable and even memorable, Hank (Nicholas Hoult) is even given a meaty role in the narrative in which he shares the same desire that Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) does. To be normal, to fit in with society, but it's not until Erik (Michael Fassbender) states “you shouldn’t try to fit into to society, they should aspire to be you.” Hank (Nicholas Hoult) goes farther than her, knowing he has the chance at an ordinary life and in reference to Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, he attempts to cure himself, but only makes everything worse. Transforming from a man with animalistic feet to a literal blue-haired beast that is not precisely rendered believably. The prosthetics don’t correctly work, but Vaughn’s styling of the characters does. 

Vaughn blends that timeless sixties essence with the comic book imagery of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Even directing an entire sequence with the panel like transitions that exploit the best of his talents as a filmmaker. Going from “Kick-Ass” to this film was quite obtuse though, seeming as if it's missing a heavy dose of maturity, “X-Men: First Class” seems never to surpass the bombastic shrouds of its blockbuster style. 

Scared to cross that mature barrier once again, since the landscape had changed with the development of the levity driven MCU in its phase one prime, “X-Men: First Class” is directed like a comic book blockbuster in a good and bad way. Some of the scenes maintain that extra heft of escapism and others feel that there missing an integral puzzle piece. I needed that extra push, but I continued to get lost in the sixties scenery and the charisma injected into this comic book universe that once desired to wear shoes too big for its feet to fill. 

The performances are all around exceptional, but Fassbender and McAvoy share a dose of chemistry and skill as actors that makes them stand head and shoulders above their fellow x-men. I couldn’t help but feel that they were raising the bar for their castmates, but they were unable to match their talent. Lawrence has some resonating scenes that are carried by herself, but the writing behind her isn’t exactly the best. The rest of the actors are supportive of the story, but they don’t exactly stand out. Either because of the writing or the lack of attention, every other character fades into the background and becomes stigmatic plot devices to carry our main characters motivations. 

“X-Men: First Class” matches the brilliance of “X2,” and also suffers from the same flaws. Hinting at the mutational struggles that marginalize and stigmatize these characters, but choosing to focus on the action of it all. Though the action is handled masterfully and the screenplay is well done, “X-Men: First Class” is the stereotypical comic book movie that becomes absent of its emotions. Everything is done well, there are even yellow and blue uniforms, but mutants are symbols for us. 

They’re emotional; they're powerful, they're inspiring. They remind us of all the stigmatizing struggles that we continue to face as a society, but why these ideals remain outside of this franchise is beyond me. They've attempted it before, but it seems the franchise is as extreme as it's main characters. Either it's all dour or all action, never a blend of the two. 

“X-Men: First Class” is the “comic book movie” that is quite a turn of tone from Bryan Singer’s take on the mutant heroes. The inherent emotionality of the 1960’s comic fades into the background as the confidence and abilities of our characters become the focus. The mutant versus man storyline only grows present in the films harsh finale in which consequences emerge and reality conflicts with fiction, but the remainder of the film is fun, loud, and bombastically entertaining. 
 

X-Men (2000)

   Director: Bryan Singer With: Anna Paquin, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, & Halle Berry.  Release: July 14, 2000 PG-13. 1 hr. 44 min. 

Director: Bryan Singer
With: Anna Paquin, Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, & Halle Berry. 
Release: July 14, 2000
PG-13. 1 hr. 44 min. 

 

Time affects all things, especially superheroes (well, most of them). The genre has grown beyond not only our margins of expectations, but it's own as well. It’s developed a levitated formula though, and for those who've become tired of the lightheartedness of superheroes, go back and watch Bryan Singer’s “X-men.” A film where the jokes are almost non-existent, but so is the depth for the characters as the origin story is, usually (A la Deadpool, A la Wolverine, not well-known origin stories for either) the most integral tale for a superhero. 

We need to understand their reasons, their growth, their cause for justice or injustice. “X-Men” seems to forget the significance of origin. Despite spending almost half of the film on flushing out the characters, we only learn surface level things about most, if not, all of the characters. 

Luckily, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Magneto/Erik Lyncher (Ian McKellen) are flushed out through long stenches of monologues and superb performances. Erik (Ian McKellen) is the son of Holocaust victims whose unique belief, sparked outrage from Nazis, much like the uniqueness of mutants sparks outrage from humanity. He seeks to change everyone's mind by mutating them, forcing them to evolve at a rapid pace that is both unhealthy and unlikely. It’s a bit unthought out, but sociopathically it makes sense. He’s a man that came to the simple conclusion that it's hard to be racist towards the same race that your apart of. Xavier (Patrick Stewart) in on the opposing side of the spectrum, attempting to save those caught in the crossfire of his and his oldest friends’ differing ideologies. He thinks that humanity will evolve with time and with undying faith, he manifests a team that stands in front of the tyranny of Magneto (Ian McKellen). 

Beginning with Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), a telepathic and telekinetic being who seems to desire a continuing of her training, I think, it's kind of only hinted at in one or two scenes. Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) is enjoyable to watch as a younger man, and he is the most charismatic and intriguing member of the ensemble, but he’s never given time. We primarily follow him as a man looking for answers and purpose, but he’s only given one or two scenes to extenuate upon that desire for intent. Cyclops/Scott Summers (James Marsden) and Storm/Ororo Munroe (Halle Berry) are primarily crafted by their powers, so guy with laser beam eyes or inter-dimensional, ruby colored, concussive force beams which are the technical terms, (Nerdy, I know) and a girl with weather controlling powers.

The character that embarks us in discovering all of these characters though is Rogue (Anna Paquin), a young teenage girl whose mutation becomes a curse more than a blessing. With the ability to absorb another’s mutation, memories, and personality,  she can drain the another of all their powers through physical contact, which can become more of a defense mechanism than an offensive one. For example, she stumbles into Wolverine’s (Hugh Jackman) room when he’s having a nightmare. Out of rage, he awakes and extracts his claws in a fury, stabbing Rogue (Anna Paquin) in the chest. In a flight or fight response, Rogue (Anna Paquin) slowly places her hand on Wolverines’s (Hugh Jackman) cheek and absorbs his healing ability to restore the punctured holes in her body. 

It’s scenes like this and the continuously unfinished themes that bring “X-Men” to a jolting stop on more than one occasion. The story has fascinating, building block, topics involving marginalization, grief, depression, and unity. Each one of these themes is introduced wonderfully but never built upon. They are pyramid designed themes with only the bottom block attached, being used as a finished project. I appreciate the ideas and their meaning, and their use in a superhero genre film, but I can’t help but become bored from the lack of depth given to each of these emotionally investing themes. They are dripping with potential, that the X-Men cinematic universe explores later on, but this was the time to do it. Start strong, not soft. 

Bryan Singer strongly delivers though, providing a remarkably created, visually evocative world that feels almost tactile. Unlike comic book films before it (Batman (1989), is excellent but feels and looks fake, same goes for “Superman”), “X-Men” has a great deal of atmospheric realism attached to its story, primarily because of Singer’s direction. The visual effects have aged, but that look far better than they should due to Singer underutilization of them. The practicality stands out magnificently, like a window to an older and wiser soul. The action, what little there is, is produced efficiently and when it does finally arrive, it’s well worth it. I needed more action in this superhero movie though, “Logan” is dark and dour, but it blends it's characters and story together with action and great comic book filmmaking, as does “The Dark Knight.” 

Sadly, “X-Men” did not have these films to learn from, but setting blazing a path for greater films was the best gift “X-Men” could have given us, a path that eventually led to “Deadpool.” (I heart that) The direction is fantastic, and the visual imagery is tactile-like, but the characters and story are mere facades for deep emotionality that is trapped by its own ambitions. I respect “X-Men” more than I love it, but the story’s maturity, well performed characters (whenever they are well-depicted), and necessary questions pushed the genre farther into today’s prime time of success. I enjoy watching the film, but I can’t say that I am ever invested in it. I love seeing a mature comic book story (“Dark Knight Returns,” “Old-Man Logan,” “The Killing Joke,” “Infinity,” or any “Thanos” comic almost), but they only work if you provide time and depth to your characters so that they can become something for us to invest in. After rewatching “X-Men,” the only thing I’m invested in, is the idea of watching and reviewing the awesome sequel. 
 

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

   Director: Zack Snyder With: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, & Michael Shannon. Release: Mar 25, 2016 PG-13. 2 hr. 31 min. 

Director: Zack Snyder
With: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Scoot McNairy, & Michael Shannon.
Release: Mar 25, 2016
PG-13. 2 hr. 31 min. 

 

Zack Snyder (“Man of Steel” & “Watchmen”) has always had a flair for theatrics, constructing elongated paintings that construct a constant frame of imagery. That imagery always seems to remain in the frame though, as if he’s forgotten the source that breathes life into the camera, the page, something constructed by Chris Terrio (“Argo”) and David S. Goyer (“Batman Begins”) in "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice." A storyline that subtly suggests that it's far more clever than we're giving it credit for as if the expectational blockbuster criticisms have duped us.

It’s a constant argument that is usually summarized in a few words: "You just didn't get it." That’s not what's going on in “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice” though, which aside from its long title name, refuses to provide any sense of detail to its story. It’s an overlong, overblown, and overdramatic formulation of a superhero movie that, like “Man of Steel,”  confuses adaptation for reinvention. 

The plot uses a familiar Marvel technique in pulling story beats from a multitude of comic books to produce a cohesive story that is both original and partially inspired by its source material. It’s a fine art that Marvel has turned into a well-oiled machine. It begins with a flashback, as all great films do, in which we rewatch the events of the Wayne’s shooting. The pearl necklace breaking, Thomas Wayne (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) attempting to stand up to terror, and Bruce (Ben Affleck) becoming an orphan. 

The origin story we’ve seen a thousand times is retold and recreated, while prettier than past tales, it's a story we’ve heard more than once and will inevitably hear again. Its point for existence is to introduce a motif involving falling, from Bruce (Ben Affleck) falling down the well into the cave to the fallen angel known as Superman (Henry Cavill). A motif and a pattern that is noticeable and blatantly obvious, like the rehashed post-9/11 subtext that seems to have poured over from “Man of Steel.” 

Nonetheless, the story develops into a muddled and confusing tale involving DC’s two heaviest hitters who end up fighting each other because of some reason. Batman’s (Ben Affleck) motivation is made clear during the film’s opening sequence that involves a ground-level view of the destruction and mayhem spewed from the battle of Clark (Henry Cavill) and Zod (Michael Shannon), he becomes a fun-house mirrored image of our post-9/11 fear stating “if we believe there's even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” 

Superman (Henry Cavill) on the other hand is crafted as a messiah-like figure that pushes that sub-narrative as someone who represents the end of wars between man, possibly a signifier for peace as our cries for a savior have been answered. What if we had a be all and end all answer to tyranny? Like terrorism, for example. Would we accept it? Would we blindly follow? This is where Goyer and Terrio, and most likely Snyder, feel that they are smart storytellers, but it’s only a magic trick if you can’t see behind the curtain. 

Otherwise, it's just a neat illusion of the eye, which is what “Batman V Superman” feels like it's trying to be, narratively speaking. The bare-bones involve a rehashed version of Frank Miller “Dark Knight Returns” in which a grizzled Batman (Ben Affleck) has crossed his forbidden line, a line that is never treated as the character bending dilemma it should be. Superman (Henry Cavill) stands up to his vigilantism because he believes him to be a hero who targets poor people, or minorities themselves. 

Superman (Henry Cavill) is questioned by the world and is left with an insurmountable amount of responsibility to protect everyone, which is one of the few doses of the pathos of Jerry Siegel’s character that remains intact. What was once a character all about a boy from Kansas who can save anyone, but knows he can’t save everyone, who became a hero just because it's the right thing to do, has manifested into a supposedly innocent alien who callously ignores the collateral casualties caused by his “heroic efforts.”

A familiar sight from “Man of Steel” that is carried over into this film which eventually dwindles into a Batman (Ben Affleck) heavy plot that pushes the man of tomorrow down to a supporting role, as the dark knight is treated as the terrifying manifestation of tragedy turned vengeful guardian that Bob Kane and Bill Finger designed. He’s dark. Not just tonally, but characteristically as someone who refuses to see the forest through the trees. He battles with ferocity and brutality, something that slowly reflects the Joe Chill nightmares of his past. 

The array of characters grows past these two studs though, Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) and Lois Lane (Amy Adams) make up the team for Supes, and Alfred (Jeremy Irons) resides on team Batsy. You can also find Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), Jimmy Olsen (Michael Cassidy), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) throughout the film which also provides the star quality prowess of Holly Hunter and Harry Lennix. It becomes an overcrowded stage play, one that believes itself to be the next Hamlet, when it resides more as basement dwelling, fan-fiction, re-telling of a great story. 

Snyder attempts to camouflage those storytelling lags and character manipulations with volume and scale. Providing a two and half-hour runtime that is bombastically scored by Hans Zimmer. The tones are loud and orchestrated for heft, like that of the visuals which slow down into vignettes attempting to be poetry in motion, becoming more like a drunk teenager’s retelling of a comic book he once read. While admittedly gorgeous, they serve no purpose for the story, merely acting like fan-service for comic fans. As a fan, I felt serviced by these live-action paintings of comic book history, but substance over style is a constant criticism that continually goes over Snyder’s head. 

Few filmmakers make that critique work for them (like Kubrick), and Snyder is still struggling to make it work for him, even seeming like he has a fetish for the theatrical flair of cinema, constructing scenes that ask you do nothing more than to be awed by what you're witnessing. That only works with a good story though, something “Batman v Superman” lacks immensely. 

“Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” is not a bad movie because it's darker than its Marvel cousins, I'd rather blame the tonal confusion and rambling storytelling for what makes this movie worse for wear. The acting is sufficient and better than average at times with Ben Affleck’s source-filled depiction of the caped crusader and Cavill’s smoldering boyish charm as the hero from Smallville. There are brilliant moments of blockbuster spectacle, the trio of Justice and the glimpses of future heroes are exciting, but the dour and heavy-handed battering you feel from the story is enough to make you forget about any of the heroism you previously saw. 

Superheroes can be more than catchphrases, witty dialogue, and “boyish” good looks, but “Batman v Superman” is not that pinnacle of the genre, more accurately described as the dejected and mistreated toys of a bad owner. I got what Snyder was going for with this movie. I just didn't care. 

Ant-Man (2015)

   Director: Peyton Reed With: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Bobby Cannavale, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, & Abby Ryder Fortson. Release: July 17, 2015 PG-13. 1 hr. 57 min.

Director: Peyton Reed
With: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Evangeline Lilly, Corey Stoll, Michael Pena, Tip “T.I.” Harris, David Dastmalchian, Bobby Cannavale, Wood Harris, Judy Greer, & Abby Ryder Fortson.
Release: July 17, 2015
PG-13. 1 hr. 57 min.

 

In this Marvel experiment, we, comic book nerds, continually expect there to be a point where geekdom doesn’t connect with the mainstream; waiting for that proverbial cliff where this once so-called “niche” of entertainment and storytelling doesn’t connect. I am delighted to declare that day has not arrived as Marvel Studios and Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man” proves that this cinematic universe has much more to offer, because sometimes “lightweight” isn’t an insult. The comic-based shrunken-down hero from the minds of David Michelinie and John Byrne finds himself granted citizenship into this world of heroism and spectacle, wisely deciding to ignore the world-saving urgency of past films in exchange for the weightless proceedings we embark upon a light yet stern, entertaining journey.

Centering around one of the more arguably goofy Comic book characters, “Ant-Man” opens in 1989 with a digitally de-aged Michael Douglas strolling into an intelligence-gathering center of some kind. Facing down some powerful frenemies in that of Howard Stark (reprised by John Slattery), a middle-aged but lovely Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), and the sneery member of the table Mitchell Caron (Martin Donovan). Their conversation becomes a heated exchange, one resulting in the young Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) slamming Mitchell’s (Martin Donovan) head into the table in front of him, making for a great line later on when the two re-acquaint themselves as oldened and grizzled men.

Elsewhere, grand larceny vigilante, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), is being released from his three-year prison sentence. He’s greeted by his eccentric friend, Luis (Michael Pena). As they catch up, Scott (Paul Rudd) swears off his former life, promising he’s turned over a new leaf, that his degrees in mechanical engineering will land him safely on his feet. Obviously, this doesn’t happen as he finds himself working as a server at his local “Baskin Robbins.” He’s found out to be an ex-con though, a hilarious exchange between him and his then manager ensues that ends with him heading back to his apartment, unsure of how to proceed.

At this time we meet Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s (Michael Douglas) hand-chosen successor, who is on the brink of discovering the technology that Hank (Michael Douglas) tried to bury so many years ago. Hank (Michael Douglas) takes note of this early on when his estranged daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), reaches out to him for his assistance in stopping this madman. She volunteers, bashfully, to get in the suit and put a stop to this herself, Hank (Michael Douglas) refuses. Saying he might have someone else in mind, SPOILER: It's Scott Lang (Paul Rudd). He’s pulled into this battle by his own risk though, choosing to rob Hank (Michael Douglas) based off of a purposeful tip to draw him in. Why does he resort back to crime? Simple, his daughter. He went in when she was too little to understand, and came out with her now being his only aim and intention in life.

Which is where this story begins to soar, Reed and his team are crafty in maintaining this particularly pure magic. It’s not exactly or entirely fluffy; it’s actually remarkably agile and nimble on its feet. Feeling improvised for most of its crisp runtime, pacing and almost masterfully exhibiting its merit for existing in this overwhelmingly dynamic cinematic universe. While it's plot centers around “Ant-Man” stopping the megalomaniacal big bad to keep this ever-so valuable technology out of the wrong hands, the story is about a father trying to reconnect with his daughter and a daughter struggling to gain her father’s approval. It’s both heartwarming and heart-wrenching to watch, not in a way that will drive tears to roll down your face, but enough of an emotional pull to make you believe in this tiny, but powerful, hero.

Another facet that will benefit your viewing experience is the film’s lack of reliance on its universe, choosing to stray away from the inside jokes and “club members only” mentality. It does make some fair arguments that involve our more prominent heroes, but it never chooses to invoke their name simply out of admonishment to the universe that “Ant-Man” has joined. What the movie does deliver is an amalgamation of the tone of a “Mission: Impossible” movie with Marvel’s quippy element thrown into the mix. It’s a strange blend in which the film feels inherently homespun from the MCU, but, inevitably, unique.

Channeling that magical concoction that “Guardians of the Galaxy” magnificently expressed two years prior, “Ant-Man” manifests an acquainted fingerprint, one that is unparalleled, yet recognizable. Another thing it channels from that 2014 hit is that of the prosaic antagonist, in that film it was the forgettable Ronan, this time around, it's the maniacally mediocre David Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll). His screams are ferocious but empty of resonance, he, like his comparative counterpart, is unshaped, unprepared for the spotlight. While Stoll is doing all he can to give this character a chance, Reed and his team join the Marvel cliche of a damning good hero without a formidable dance partner.

That’s not to say that the movie has no stakes for our hero, quite the opposite. The venture is steep, and, like all great thrillers, it's an uphill battle. Savvy, wise-cracking Scott (Paul Rudd) comes out of prison with nothing but his past to help him. He wants to make it in the “straight” world so he can have more time with his daughter. The fact that his, now, ex-wife now lives with a cop (Bobby Cannavale) adds both an emotional complication and a few plot twists along the way. They’re not grandiose twists, but ones knitted tightly to the narrative, as this story never becomes about the fate of the entire world or the ever-expanding universe. Cross (Corey Stoll) is a lunatic, he wants to make an army of Yellowjackets, bidding them off to the highest buyer, but the movie never becomes about the destruction of cities or the loss of mass life; it remains integrally grounded.

There is a lot of material to juggle though, yet the film seamlessly does so with a charming grin. It’s also competing with an absurd visual-effects element; the different sizes of “Ant-Man” bring with them different worlds and his interaction with the ants has an absurd surreality to them. The screenplay is credited to Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish, and then Rudd and Adam McKay. Wright was initially set to direct as many fans hoped to see an Edgar Wright Marvel flick, and many of the visual gags feel derived from his creative mind. Reed’s direction cannot go without praise though, maintaining a wonderful through-line; never stepping out of bounds or out of the box it's chosen to call home.

It’s a juggling act, as I said. One that can somehow juxtaposes a heist thriller with that of a comic science-fiction picture; all of which is adhered to the whole Marvel thing. How it achieves this magic act of a movie has a lot to do with the phenomenal character work from Rudd, Lily, and Douglas. Each of whom provides a soulful farce to the story, a level of whimsical humor that is almost upstaged by the film’s breakout performance from Michael Pena. He, alongside T.I. and David Dastmalchian portray varying shades of hilarity, but Pena is a standout here like no other. Taking something that so easily could’ve been a caricature or a workaround of the high-pitched Latino gangster type, but he provides a root of humanity to it. Peppering in little character building details throughout that craft a character based off an actor’s portrayal, a high-wire act that few can pull off.

“Ant-Man,” itself, achieves the same rarified excellence. It knows what it is, and what it wants to achieve, and that’s not always a bad thing. Sure, some films should reach higher, jump farther, pull harder; but others merely need to stay on course, and “Ant-Man” does just that. It’s delightful almost, miraculous even. It's deftly and unpredictably initiating the world to an alcove character with devilishly clever wit and sharpfully designated set-pieces of rambunctiously joyous action. It's light as a feather at times, recognizably heavy in others, a near-perfect mixture for an enjoyable time in the theater. As I said, Marvel is just getting starting, which, undoubtedly, has me grinning at the final promise of what’s to come for our bite-sized hero.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

   Director: Joss Whedon With: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, & Thomas Kretschmann. Release: May 1, 2015 PG-13. 2 hr. 21 min.

Director: Joss Whedon
With: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgard, Samuel L. Jackson, & Thomas Kretschmann.
Release: May 1, 2015
PG-13. 2 hr. 21 min.

 

There is something inherently special about seeing all of these heroes on the silver screen, and Marvel Studios is aware of this. It’s a critical ingredient that makes a movie like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” feel bigger and grander than anything before it, a movie that, for all of its box office might, is rich in human-scale emotion. It’s surprisingly soulful, allowing for the meat and grit of the depth that fabricates these characters to swallow the screen along with the imposing portraits of heroism. It corrects that one fatal flaw of “The Avengers” allowing this team of spandex heroes to become inevitably human, to become shrunken down to size, and it's something that feels like a successful second effort from director/writer Joss Whedon.

Though he shares the sole credit, don’t let the IMDB page fool you, Marvel Studios is a well-oiled machine of teamwork. To assume Joss worked alone on crafting this project would a be a bit absurd, which might explain the bumps felt along this joyous ride of comic-book spectacle. It’s a heart-filled story, one that has Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) at the center of it. Both of whom are continuing to evolve their respective characters as the expanding story continues, with Captain (Chris Evans) still struggling to identify his place in the world as the benevolent hero that he is, how a pure and benign man fits into this unsteady and selfish world. It’s fair to assume he’s probably a virgin. Maybe he made time with a choir girl when on his War Bond tour, but he doesn’t seem to fit that kind of caricature.

So, it's fair to say that Cap (Chris Evans) is purer than snow, and it shows from the opening scene of “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” A gigantic, ensemble, enthralling sequence of action and grit that releases the first bit of dialogue from Tony (Robert Downey Jr) as he rams into a wall mid-flight and reacts by spurting out the word “shit.” Without even thinking about it, Steve (Chris Evans) instinctively responds with “language!” This is a man of nobility, which would make for a dull and mundane caricature of heroism right? The opposite occurs though, as the events from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” seep through the cracks between the franchise, the continuing arc of this out of place soldier continues and is met with a growing character arc from Tony (Robert Downey Jr).

A man who, as we saw in Black’s “Iron Man 3,” is continuing to battle with this traumatic ideal of fear and guilt, afraid that when the day comes to “Avenge” the earth once again, he won’t answer the call. It’s a man pleading for a guarantee of safety, echoing that of America’s “War on Terror.” Acting out as this paternalistic military-industrialized response to 9/11 type threats, Stark (Robert Downey Jr) struggles to cope with the idea that there is this gaping hole of vulnerability hanging over the Earth. An extreme fret for security that will hopefully act as the gatekeeper as he describes “what if the next time aliens roll up -- and they will -- they couldn’t get past the bouncer?”

It’s this idea that inspires Tony (Robert Downey Jr) to manifest this ultimate safeguard, “a shield of armor around the world” as he self-professed. Attempting to produce “Peace in our time,” Tony (Robert Downey Jr) along with Dr. Banner (Mark Ruffalo) create the titular bad guy in that of Ultron (James Spader). Originally designated to serve as the Skynet-like artificial intelligence network that detects apocalyptic threats and swiftly destroys them, Ultron (James Spader) constitutes that a different creature is responsible for the grave threat impending on this little blue world. SPOILER: It's us. Shocking, I know, but it's this dreading mentality that worries Cap (Chris Evans) at one point describing the problem to Tony (Robert Downey Jr) “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die. Every time."

These parallels become a subplot focus to our story, and like all great subplots, it informs and affects the main storyline being told, like that of another great subplot involving that of Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who is afforded some much-needed character depth, something I sadly cannot say the same for his female co-stars. It’s a bit of a shrug of disappointment for me because I know that Marvel is trying to get this right while balancing that of the more essential characters to the story, but with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) being deemed a “monster” for her forced sterilization during her assassin graduation ceremony. Along with the introduction of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) who, like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), is provided some standout moments as a heroine. The ladies of the team seem like they're on standby more than they are actually a part of the fight.

Another problem I have with this much-anticipated sequel of superheroics occurs in the same vein as the first film, a film where I craved more emotional fragments to derive from its gallantry, something granted to me by the sequel. Like the first film though, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” suffers from flaws that seemingly stifle the cinematic universe as a whole. While it's not the heart-wrenching zeal this time around, the blemishes derive from the forward-thinking ideology in the construction of these movies.

Scenes that are put on the screen, not to tell the story we have embarked upon, but to set up one that is still to come. Some of the aspects of “Avengers: Age of Ultron” do this while operating under the parameters of the screenplay were given, like that of Cap (Chris Evans) and Tony’s (Robert Downey Jr) ideological spar, a possible peak at the events to unfold in next summer's “Captain America: Civil War.” Other events that occur, especially with that of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), are far too on-the-nose and to forthcoming that they distract, ruining the spell and spoiling the magic trick. It’s a big, and noticeable scratch on this finished product of this destructo-rama, CGI fest of epicness.

For all of those missteps though, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is remarkable. The majority of the highs stem from character work, something Marvel consistently excels at as Whedon manages to refine the personalities involved in this overstuffed, mega-narrative. The ensemble cross-conversations are as entertaining as the last film, exchanging quips and snarks that are sure to rouse the crowd with grins and giggles. Amid those moments though are the glimpses of pathos, sentiment, and operatic horror. It’s a well-tuned quotable machine, both with that of its impassive comradery and it's evocations/homages to classical works. Ultron (James Spader) is a splendor character as well, a villain worth noting. Another example of faith in technology run amok, Ultron (James Spader) fancies himself a robot deity of sorts, one that creates other small robots in his image, a cruel god swatting flies for sport.

The character work reveals itself in a way that is kindly familiar to comic books kinship to horror, with conversations and monologues that consider the juxtaposition of chaos and control, heroism and cowardice, how that yin and yang dilemma informs action and ideas. It’s these kinds of sincere and philosophical developments of the characters that make for great cinema, evolving these characters past their silly and inconsistent objections from the lore of comics. Despite being a fan of the iconic niche of panels and heroics, they are, admittedly, confusing from an outside perspective, something Feige and a surrounding team of talent have seemingly fine-tuned to perfection, allowing mainstream audiences to resonate with these other-worldly gods with this down to Earth treatment. If you don’t consider Feige to be one of the pivotal filmmakers working today, you need to readjust your constitute of the term filmmaker.

Speaking of filmmaking, Whedon doesn’t just craft brilliance on the page, but on the screen as well. Working for the first time with British d.p. Ben Davis (“Guardians of the Galaxy”), the Marvel teammates construct a compelling array of visuals. Continuing that bleaker and greyer format from “Winter Soldier,” the two men produce one lyrical set piece after another, sparking moments of spellbinding awe, simply causing you to stop in your tracks and stare at the screen with your mouth agape. The circling camera movements and re-use of interacting action from “The Avengers” become another critical moment of the action, but it's not just the set-pieces that marvel, the design of the characters excels as well.

Ultron (James Spader) as the new big bad is an overtly Jack Kirby-esque apparition, his expressive face comprised of thin coinciding sheets of metal, expressing this calm but stern and menacing expression. Dueling composers Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman provide a plethora of speaker-rattling operatic music, a score that inspires and shrivels you with goosebumps, a feeling replicated throughout the entirety of the blockbuster magic.

I know as a comic book fan, and I am already “in the bag” for these movies as geek enthusiast Kevin Smith would tout off. But “Avengers: Age of Ultron” seems to be a stepping stone towards an ideal in the maturing of these quippy spandex types, like a retelling of the comic book genre in its development towards more mature stories with groundbreaking events like “The Death of Gwen Stacy” and “The Death of Superman.” It’s silly for those of us to nitpick and complain about character’s strengths being “nerfed” and “adapted,” forgetting to take a breath and realize the magic occurring before our eyes. It’s rare to see such an epic derive into empathy, freewheeling like a no-budget indie, stretching the limits of the genre when discussing poignancy. Remember that these movies are bending into strange and surprising shapes and that the best is yet to come.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

   Director: Matthew Vaughn With: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Mark Hamill, Sofia Boutella, & Michael Caine. (English, Arabic, Swedish dialogue) Release: Feb 13, 2015 R. 2 hr. 9 min.

Director: Matthew Vaughn
With: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Mark Hamill, Sofia Boutella, & Michael Caine. (English, Arabic, Swedish dialogue)
Release: Feb 13, 2015
R. 2 hr. 9 min.

 

The James Bond franchise has grown, like any other franchise, to enclose a fair amount of systematic flaws throughout its 52-year tenure on the silver screen. The iconic-spy hero has grown to become a symbol of misogyny and sexism throughout his many portrayals. It wasn’t until the Daniel Craig Bond films that we got to witness a hero who wasn’t absent of the criticism but was volumed down enough to become worthy of a semblance of praise. Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” lives in the same line of thought, not excluding the expected dogmatic perspective of women, but slightly turning the dial down. 

Taking far more inspiration from the Roger Moore depictions from the mid to late 70s than Connery’s infamous portrayal of Ian Fleming’s iconic British hero. Remaining unserious unlike that of Daniel Craig’s regime, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is painted with that tongue and cheek dynamic of spy-stuff, but it simultaneously includes a surprising amount of gore and obscene violence. It's a winking homage to that style of a spy movie, but it's also based off of Mark Millar, and Dave Gibbons limited series run for Icon Comics in 2012. Borrowing most of its IP (intellectual property) from the realm of superheroes, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” suffer from this seemingly internal struggle to decide whether the film is a James Bond look-alike or a comic book origin story. 

The action is shot in that fashion, Vaughn and cinematographer George Richmond (“Children of Men”) fabricate this zoom and move style in which the camera closes in on facial expressions or moments that if frozen and framed would match that of the art seen out of a comic panel. The drifting and driving maneuvering is what produces this essence of intensity, carrying the tension and tone through the set pieces. Specifically, that of an unforgettable massacre inside of a hate group church as Lynyrd Skynyrd's memorable guitar solo from “Freebird” provides the energy to the fight, which acts like icing on the cake more than anything else. 

The indecisive strifes and the slight sprinkles of sexism are where my flaws end though, and the action is where my praises begin as “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a breath of welcomed fresh air to the overpopulated genre of heroines and heroes. The screenplay posits a top-secret British group of hitmen, spies, and espionage masterminds. Inspired by King Arthur and his knights, (whose names are appropriated for code names) these elite men and women hideout as tailors. Regularly saving the world and allowing their deserved praise and admiration to go unnoticed, like that of Harry “Galahad” Hart’s (Colin Firth) office encompassing walls of newspaper front pages that don’t recognize the heroism he committed on that day. A reminder that the Kingsman must remain in the shadows until they are pulled out of that masking disguise to stop the evil billionaire Mr. Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) from sending the world into the frenzy of murder and animalistic behavior.  

He wants to provide a permanent end to the fret of global warming, but the way he breaks down that imposing dilemma isn’t favorable to that of the human species. He describes humans as a “virus.” What happens when we get a virus? Our bodies create a fever, in this case, that is the global warming. So the only solution to the problem is to allow the host to kill the virus or allow the virus to kill the host, or we can kill the virus ourselves. It's this elitist sort of favoring of the rich and powerful whose money and position in the world requires them to be apart of the plan, leading to the Kingsman being forced to trust no one but themselves. 

Before this battle occurs though, we meet Eggsy (Taron Egerton). The son of a former Kingman, one trained by the same man who now teaches Eggsy (Taron Egerton). His life is indebted to the family, seeing how their beloved husband and father saved his life by risking his own. To this end, it's not surprising to learn that Eggsy (Taron Egerton) feels out of place in the world, seeing how his destiny seems to line up with that of secrecy and legendary ambitions of saving the world. 

He comes from a broken home, of course, one that is bullied by an abusive step-father of sorts who not only assaults both Eggsy and his mother but threatens to kill both of them on more than one occasion. When Eggsy is recruited, he’s both out of place and a stand out from the group of recruits he joins. Each of them come from the Oxford’s and Cambridge's of the world, Eggsy isn’t precisely silver spooned, but he does have his fair share of accomplishments like that of near-Olympic team gymnastics experience and near-graduation from the Marines being the top of his class as well. He, of course, lasts throughout the extended testing process until his morality is provided a challenge he seemingly cannot overcome. 

Meanwhile, Merlin (Mark Strong), better described as the “Q” of the Kingsman, and that of Galahad (Colin Firth) are given direct orders from Arthur (Michael Caine) to investigate the precarious state of events involving Mr. Valentine and the disappearance of numerous world leaders. He’s not exactly a madman though, his diabolical plan is understandable but stretched to the extreme, and he’s not a killer either. He gets queasy around the sight of blood, so he’s accompanied by Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), a dangerous woman with razors for feet in the literal sense. Her limbs from the mid-way intersection of the calf and the knee are missing, replaced by spring-like and razor-sharp knives for feet that allow her to sprint into action in the blink of an eye, hints her name. 

It sounds fun in theory, and for the most part, it is. The film has it's fair share of entertainment, quippy dialogue, and clever screenwriting. Though noticeably debating between which genre it applies to, “Kingsman: The Secret Service” can meld the genre of comic books and the tutelage of spy movies. The characters compare interactions to that of a James Bond movies, breaking the fourth wall and referencing the stigmas of the genre, becoming reminiscent of films such as “Scream.” It’s a parody of sorts that blends with that of a cartoonish wit; though not exactly a surprising one to watch.

You can see where everything is going, spotting the tracks through the fog, but Vaughn and Jane Goldman’s screenwriting remains fresh enough to give off the scent of originality. You can look at the motifs and the building blocks of the recipe, but not to the point that it pulls you out of the atmosphere manifested from Vaughn’s keen and talented eye for cinematic invigoration. 

The performances are relatively consistent across the board with both Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson leading the way, but it's Vaughn’s flair for explosive entertainment that keeps the film above water when it's swimming through the trenches of cliches and tropes. The violence can be proclaimed as gratuitous, but it's produced with a knack of ferocity that its hard not to be encapsulated by. The sex, while fairly on-the-nose, and arguably oppositional of the feminist mindset, can be cheeky enough to delight even the most hardcore of Social Media warriors. (Not that being an SJW is a bad thing by the way) It’s a promising concept that delivers with the glitz and glamour of a pre-summer blockbuster and snippets of genius from a reasonably consistent director like Matthew Vaughn. His recent success of “X-Men: First Class” and “Layer Cake” are equally riveting, if not superior, but “Kingsman: The Secret Service” best moments are presumably going to be unmatched throughout the year.

It’s campy, violent, brash, and undeniably compelling. It’s not going to blow anyone away, but “Kingsman: The Secret Service” is some well-designed counter-programming for those looking for a different taste than the ever-so-familiar Marvel recipe; it’s a quite enjoyable watch. Good show Lads. Bloody good show.