BLACK PANTHER: Wakanda Forever

Black Panther is so freaking cool.

Captain America: Civil War was one of my favorite movies of 2016, and one of my favorite things about it was Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, aka Black Panther, making his big-screen debut. I had heard of the character but didn’t know much about him until I saw Civil War, and the movie’s portrayal of him was so good that I immediately wanted to learn more about him.

I’ve since read some Black Panther comics and enjoyed them a lot, and like many people I had been eagerly anticipating Black Panther’s first solo movie. The hype leading up to the film’s release was huge, and it didn’t disappoint. Black Panther is one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Images: Marvel/Disney

One of the biggest complaints I hear about films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is that they tend to be formulaic. It’s hard to dispute this, since many superhero films do tend to share similar story elements. This doesn’t bother me because I love superhero movies, but I can see why some people call them formulaic.

Black Panther is one of the least formulaic films in the MCU, partly because it’s central character is the exact opposite of formulaic.
Black Panther made his first appearance in an issue of the Fantastic Four in 1966 and was the first African superhero in mainstream American comics. He is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the only source of the ultra-valuable metal vibranium. Vibranium has allowed Wakanda to create technology far more advanced than anything in the rest of the world. Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced country in the world in the Marvel universe, and I couldn’t wait to see it portrayed onscreen.

The new movie takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka, T’Challa returns home to Wakanda to become the new king. The title of Black Panther is hereditary and passed down from generation to generation, and T’Challa is the current Black Panther, who serves as the protector of Wakanda. The Black Panther is entitled to use the sacred heart-shaped herbs, which give him superhuman strength and reflexes.

I love the way the movie portrays Wakanda. It looks amazing. The sets, special effects, and costumes are top-notch and make Wakanda feel vibrant and alive. It’s the kind of place you want to visit as soon as the movie is over. We meet T’Challa’s inner circle, most of which are badass women. These include Okoye (played by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan special forces (described by one character early in the film as “Grace Jones-looking chicks”). There’s also Nakia, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, an undercover spy and former Dora Milaje member who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and his younger sister, teenage Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is the smartest person in Wakanda and keeps T’Challa supplied with cutting-edge vibranium tech.

All these characters are great, as are the actors who portray them. The cast also includes Forest Whitaker (another Oscar winner) and recent Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Shuri is my favorite character in the movie. She’s just great. She’s lively and smart and funny, and gets some of the movie’s best lines. The great thing about these characters is that they feel like a family. They don’t exist just to fill certain roles in the story, like love interest or comic relief or whatever. They love and support one another, and the actors have great chemistry. Martin Freeman is also very likable as a CIA agent who gets to be the fish-out-of-water in Wakanda.

And oh, yes. Of course, there has to be a bad guy. And this one is a doozy. He goes by the name Erik Killmonger, and with a name like that you know he’s serious. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan and is one of the MCU’s best and most well-rounded villains. The extraordinary thing about Killmonger is that you can understand his point of view. He’s the bad guy, but he’s the furthest thing from two-dimensional. Another common criticism of MCU movies is that the villains tend to be forgettable, although there are notable exceptions. Killmonger belongs firmly in the “exception” category.

Killmonger first appeared in 1973 in a seminal story arc called Panther’s Rage. The entire Panther’s Rage story is available in a single paperback, and if you want to get into Black Panther comics and are wondering where to start, Panther’s Rage is the perfect entry point. It’s not perfect, since writer Don McGregor’s captions and dialogue tend to be overstuffed and can be long-winded, but the artwork is fantastic and the stories and characters are socially and emotionally resonant. Also, the story of Panther’s Rage was very influential on the story of the film and the portrayal of the characters. There’s even a part in the book where Killmonger kicks T’Challa off a waterfall, which probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen the movie.

Seriously, read Panther’s Rage. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It tells a serious story that is still relevant today, while also delivering great moments of over-the-top comic book action. There’s a scene where T’Challa rides a pterodactyl and jumps off its back to kick a bad guy in the face while the bad guy is in the process of shooting an explosive arrow at him which then hits the pterodactyl, which then blows up. Panther’s Rage is a serious and contemplative story, but don’t think it gets too serious because it still features an exploding pterodactyl.

The movie is similar in the way it tells a serious and meaningful story while still delivering on the action, as well as goofy comic book elements. For example, Andy “Gollum” Serkis plays a character named Ulysses Klaue (simply called Klaw in the comics, in which he is a recurring Black Panther nemesis). Serkis previously played the character in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he lost an arm. Klaue has since replaced that arm with a cybernetic attachment that turns into a laser cannon that can flip cars and blow holes in walls and that sort of thing. Serkis has fun hamming it up and speaking with an over-the-top South African accent, but Killmonger is the main villain, make no mistake.

And Michael B. Jordan plays him extremely well. He’s a badass who is T’Challa’s equal in terms of physical strength and mental cunning, which makes the two very evenly-matched. He’s also had a tough upbringing and a genuine beef with T’Challa. I won’t spoil the details, but Killmonger’s gripe with T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda makes a lot of sense. It makes so much sense in fact that it even leads T’Challa to question himself, and to wonder if maybe Killmonger does have a point. The central conflict of the film is much more nuanced than many other superhero movies, and the line between good guy and bad guy gets blurred in a way that is uncommon to big-budget blockbusters.

Director Ryan Coogler is only 31 years old, and Black Panther is only his third film. He’s clearly a talent to watch and his previous two films were also critically acclaimed (and Michael B. Jordan starred in both of them, so he and Coogler clearly have a well-established rapport). He has deftly crafted a blockbuster that is fun and entertaining, while also culturally relevant and thought-provoking. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and I’m super happy that the film is already a massive success. It deserves to be.


2017: The Year in Villainy

It’s time once again for the annual roundup of cinematic scumbaggery. Strap yourself in for a whirlwind tour of the best the year had to offer in sheer evil. Beware of spoilers.

The Skullcrawlers in Kong: Skull Island

The Skullcrawlers are basically giant snakes with arms sticking out the front of their bodies. They’re hideous, and provide a fearsome enemy for Kong to battle. You could also argue that Kong himself is the villain, since he does kill quite a few people, or that Samuel L. Jackson’s increasingly-deranged Colonel Preston Packard shows that MAN is the real villain. But in my opinion, the Skullcrawlers are the most straightforward antagonist of the film, so we’re going to go with them.

Image: Warner Bros.

Gaston in Beauty and the Beast

Gaston was always one of my favorite classic Disney villains, and Luke Evans did a wonderful job of bringing him to life. Everything you remember from the animated version of Gaston is present and accounted for in the live-action version. The massive ego, the determination to marry Belle, and the bloodlust that reveals itself when he sets out to kill the beast. Bravo to Disney and Luke Evans for such a faithful recreation of an iconic villain.

Image: Disney

The Joker etc. in The Lego Batman Movie

The Joker was the main villain in the extremely fun Lego Batman Movie, but I have to give a shoutout to the many other villains packed in to the movie, not all of them Batman villains. From Egghead, King Tut and Condiment King to Sauron, King Kong, and Voldemort, the gang’s all here. Zach Galifianakis did great work voicing the Joker and giving him a mix of scary and funny that was just right for the film’s tone. I didn’t get around to writing about Lego Batman last year, but it was a ton of fun and the filmmakers did an amazing job of packing it full of Easter eggs and references that are fun to look for on repeat viewings. It’s the kind of kids movie that both kids and adults can enjoy.

Image:Warner Bros.

Donald Pierce in Logan

Logan was my favorite film of the year and an emotional rollercoaster that I still don’t think I’ve quite recovered from. It also featured some of the most despicable villains, led by jackass-in-chief Donald Pierce and his robotic hand. Pierce and his cronies are not only responsible for ending the mutant gene, but they also created their own pet mutants using DNA from various X-Men, and raised the mutant kids in captivity and trained them to be weapons. Dastardly. Pierce’s comeuppance at the hands of the mutant children he helped create was one of the most satisfying and appropriate villain deaths of 2017.

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Assassins in John Wick: Chapter 2

The most accurate way to describe the villains of the sequel to John Wick is “everyone other than John Wick.” It seems like everyone and their mother is out to kill this guy, from the woman playing the violin in the subway to the bodyguards of one of the targets he assassinates. By the end of the film, John is more alone than ever, with the implication that basically the entire world is out to get him, so he’ll have his hands full (and then some) in John Wick 3, which I hope comes soon. The picture I included with this entry does not depict any particular one of these assassins, but is still very representative of the crap John has to put up with throughout the film. His exasperated face says it all.

Image: Lionsgate

Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been criticized for having somewhat weak villains (aside from standouts like Loki and the Red Skull). But 2017 was a strong year for MCU villains, getting off to a good start with Kurt Russell’s Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. Ego is a central character to the film’s plot and an important part of the main character’s identity, so he doesn’t feel like a villain who’s there simply because the film needs a villain. His plan for galactic domination is thoroughly evil and even though he’s a bit too talky during the middle portion of the film, it’s still quite satisfying to see Peter Quill overcome his evil father’s influence and realize that his true family was right in front of him all along.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Vortigern in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Guy Ritchie’s utterly insane King Arthur romp is not what I would call a good movie, but it’s a movie I kind of like simply because of how deranged it is. Given the insanity of the rest of the film, Jude Law’s commitment to his role as the evil king Vortigern is admirable. Vortigern is power-crazed and willing to sacrifice anything to maintain his power, including the lives of his own family. Despite the film’s weirdness, there’s a surprising sense of poignancy when Arthur defeats his evil uncle Vortigern and the look on Law’s face as Vortigern dies conveys the sense that he realizes all his actions, including sacrificing his own wife and daughter, have been for nothing.

Image: Warner Bros.

David and the Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant

Xenomorphs have been scary ever since they first appeared on cinema screens in 1979, and after nearly four decades they are still every bit as scary. Some fans had issues with Covenant’s Xenomorph origin story, since apparently the slithery monstrosities were created by David, the wayward android from 2013’s Prometheus. Story issues aside, Michael Fassbender is terrific in a dual role and it’s a testament to the strength of the original Xenomorph design by H.R. Giger that the slimy creatures are as scary now as they were at the beginning, despite their appearance and behavior having changed very little over the years.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Cypher in The Fate of the Furious

I had a lot of issues with the plot of the massively-successful eighth film in the Fast and Furious franchise, so much so that I dedicated an entire post to it a couple of months ago. But I still give a lot of credit to Charlize Theron, who clearly has a lot of fun playing the blond-dreadlocked superhacker Cypher. Despite her generic name, Cypher is a cunning adversary who creates all kinds of trouble for Dom Toretto and his crew. She survives the movie and, given the series’ tendency to turn former adversaries into allies, it wouldn’t surprise me if she joined Dom’s team in future installments. But seeing how much fun Theron has in the role, it wouldn’t bother me too much if that turned out to be the case.

Image: Universal

Capitan Salazar and the Ghost Pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

I liked the most recent Pirates adventure a lot more than apparently everyone else who saw it. A big part of my enjoyment of the film was due to its excellent villains, the leader of which is played by the always-scary Javier Bardem. The special effects that created Bardem’s Capitan Salazar and his ghostly crew of undead marauders were fantastic. I loved the designs of the ghost pirates, some of them were missing body parts and their hair and clothing were always floating, as if they were constantly suspended underwater. The movie had plenty of flaws, but the badass villains were not one of them. Also, zombie sharks.

Image: Disney

Ahmanet in The Mummy

The Mummy was not a good film, but by far the best thing about it was the performance of Sofia Boutella as the titular antagonist, Ahmanet. I like the idea of a female antagonist in a Mummy movie, and Boutella did great work bringing Ahmanet to undead life. It’s too bad that the rest of the film couldn’t live up to the standard of Boutella’s performance, and flopped so hard it may have torpedoed Universal’s hopes to build an interconnected universe of monster movies. The film may have been a failure, but its lack of success can’t be placed at the feet of the actress who was easily the movie’s biggest strong suit.

Image: Universal

Ares, General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman’s trifecta of villains was probably the weakest aspect of an otherwise excellent film. They weren’t terrible, just kind of generic. But it speaks to the awesomeness of the film’s heroine that an evil German scientist, an evil German general, and the God of War himself never stood a chance against Diana of Themyscira (I keep wanting to call the scientist and the general Nazis but they weren’t Nazis because the film takes place during World War I). They’re fun villains in a 1940’s movie serial way, even if they lack the heroine’s three-dimensional personality.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming

Michael Keaton was excellent as Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture, in Spider-Man’s first solo entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The reveal of Toomes as the father of Peter Parker’s high school crush and homecoming date Liz was extremely well done, and the subsequent scene of Peter, Liz, and Toomes in the car on the way to the homecoming dance dripped with tension. The Vulture is one of the MCU’s best villains, and the filmmakers did a great job of making him somewhat sympathetic, as well as connecting his origin to the larger cinematic universe of which he is a part. Bravo, Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Bats, Buddy and Doc in Baby Driver

The titular character of Edgar Wright’s hugely entertaining Baby Driver lives a life surrounded by dangerous and unpredictable people. Doc is the mastermind of the heist crew, and Jon Hamm’s Buddy and Jamie Foxx’s Bats are the muscle. Buddy appears to be the more mentally stable of the two, while Bats is a lunatic who can barely control his lust for mayhem. Wright does a brilliant turnaround by killing off Bats during the climactic failed heist and making Buddy the last antagonist Ansel Elgort’s Baby must overcome before being able to be with Lily James’ Debora, the waitress he’s fallen in love with. Buddy proves to be quite tenacious, and Jon Hamm is menacing as hell. I loved Baby Driver, and can’t wait to see what Edgar Wright does next.

Image: Sony Pictures

Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

Cate Blanchett’s Hela was my favorite villain, or in this case villainess, of the year. She was absolutely kick-ass. Ragnarok was a blast from start to finish, and Hela was mesmerizing to watch. Blanchett clearly had a ton of fun playing her (how could she not?) and whenever she wasn’t on screen I wished she was. She’s a much more three-dimensional villain than the rather dull Dark Elves from Thor’s previous solo outing, and I can’t be the only person out there who thought she was, I dunno, kinda hot in a weird way (please tell me I’m not the only one). She appears to get killed at the end of the movie, which makes me sad that we probably won’t be seeing her again. One can only hope.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Steppenwolf in Justice League

A lot of people hated Justice League, but I wasn’t one of them. Sure, it had its share of issues, but I don’t think it deserved as much hate as it got. I will admit that its villain was weak, though. Steppenwolf was an intergalactic harbinger of doom that was just not very interesting. He looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album (wasn’t there a band called Steppenwolf at some point?) and spouts a lot of crap about conquering the world and whatnot. Yawn. Still, give him some credit for being able to take on six superheroes and give them all a run for their money, and Ciaran Hinds does a good job voicing him.

Image: Warner Bros.

Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Oh, boy. Where to even start with The Last Jedi? The issues I had with this film could fill their own post (and they will soon), but I did like Adam Driver’s performance as the tormented Kylo Ren, formerly known as Ben Solo, and motion-capture wizard Andy Serkis was pretty great as Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order. I have issues with these characters (more on that in an upcoming post), and Snoke is kind of a dumb name, but the performances were solid and I loved Snoke’s crimson-bedecked throne room.

Image: Lucasfilm

Pennywise in IT

One of horror maestro Stephen King’s most terrifying creations, Pennywise the Dancing Clown has been traumatizing readers since the book’s publication in 1986. Tim Curry’s portrayal of Pennywise scared the pants off an entire generation in the 1990 TV movie of IT, and Bill Skarsgard’s terrifying portrayal of Pennywise in the smash-hit new movie was absolutely chilling. Skarsgard nailed the character, who basically is the ultimate embodiment of pure, unfiltered, malicious evil. Hela may have been my favorite villain of the year, but Pennywise was by far the scariest.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Man in Black in The Dark Tower

The film adaptation of another Stephen King story, The Dark Tower did not enjoy the same warm reception that IT did. I thought The Dark Tower was a fun adventure, albeit one that didn’t take full advantage of the opportunities presented by the source material. But the lead characters are played by two of my favorite actors, and it is fun to watch Idris Elba as the heroic gunslinger Roland and Matthew McConaughey as the diabolical Man in Black butt heads. McConaughey does great work bringing one of King’s most prolific villains to life (the character has appeared in multiple iterations across several of King’s books) and I’m glad that we got see these characters onscreen, even if only the one time, since the film’s underwhelming box-office performance makes a sequel unlikely.

Image: Columbia Pictures

Poppy Adams in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Matthew Vaughn’s overstuffed Kingsman sequel may have been a mess, but at least it was a fun mess. While Pennywise was the year’s scariest villain, Julianne Moore’s Poppy was without a doubt the most cheerful. She has a radiant smile for most of the film, even when commanding one of her henchmen to toss another one of her followers into a meat grinder and making a burger out of him. She also had one of the most unique hideouts, dwelling in a 50’s-inspired utopia in the middle of the jungle in Cambodia. Or at least I think it was Cambodia. Poppy also kept Elton John captive and had robotic guard dogs named Bennie and Jet, so give her points for originality.

Image: 20th Century Fox

And there you have it! See you again in a year or so for another roundup of cinematic evil.

Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

Warner Bros. and DC Comics’ attempts to emulate Marvel and Disney’s success with an interconnected cinematic universe of superheroes has met with mixed results, to say the least. They started off reasonably well with Man of Steel in 2013, before stumbling with Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad in 2016. They scored their first major hit with Wonder Woman earlier this year, and were hoping for another big hit with Justice League, the superhero team-up movie that is DC Comics’ version of the Avengers.

Image: Warner Bros.

Well, they’re back to the mixed results, since Justice League earned middling reviews and underwhelming box-office returns. It’s still a fun action-packed romp, but behind-the-scenes drama may have prevented it from being an Avengers-sized hit.

The movie is a flat two hours long, apparently a result of a Warner Bros. mandate that the film not exceed two hours in length, after Batman V Superman was criticized for being overlong at two and a half hours. The shorter running time of Justice League means that the pacing is better and the movie has a good sense of momentum, but the downside is that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed-out as they might have been given more time to develop them.

The movie was also subject to extensive reshoots, which were directed by Avengers maestro Joss Whedon after original director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film for a time for personal reasons. This means that Justice League was essentially directed by two different directors, although only Snyder is credited. Fortunately, the new scenes are integrated well enough that it didn’t seem to me that parts of the film were directed by different people, although I’m sure fans will have fun trying to figure out which scenes were shot by Whedon. I think Whedon was brought in to film mostly new dialogue scenes to help flesh out the characters and their relationships a bit, since “relationships” are not exactly one of Zack Snyder’s strong suits.

Snyder gets a lot of hate, much of which I think is undeserved. People just love to hate the guy for whatever reason. I think that he has a talent for eye-catching visuals and is a good director of kinetic action sequences, but the characters in his films don’t resonate as strongly as the visuals and action scenes. One of the best descriptions I’ve heard of Snyder’s work is that his films are full of great moments and memorable images, but good individual moments don’t necessarily add up to a great movie. This is a good description of Justice League as well, regardless of which director directed which scenes.

Image: Warner Bros.

But who are the characters in Justice League? There are six, and the identity of one of them could be considered a spoiler, since Warner Bros. kept him out of the film’s marketing materials. So, spoiler alert, I guess, although this character’s appearance will not come as much of a surprise for anyone familiar with comic books. When we last Superman, he was dead, killed by the monster called Doomsday at the end of Batman V Superman. He gets resurrected in Justice League, and I’ll keep the details of his resurrection a secret, although I will say that I thought it was handled pretty well, and that it was well-integrated with the rest of the film’s plot.

The other five characters, and the ones that the marketing focused on, are Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, and Cyborg. We already know Batman and Wonder Woman, but the other three are making their big-screen debuts (not counting their brief introductory cameos in earlier films). The movie has a lot of weight on its shoulders, since it has to establish these characters and set up a villain that will take their combined efforts to defeat, especially with the truncated two-hour running time.

When the first Avengers movie came out back in 2012, it had a distinct advantage over the Justice League movie. In that film, we were already familiar with the characters, since we had seen them in previous movies. Even the film’s villain, Loki, was someone we already knew well. In Justice League, three of the main characters are essentially new to the film’s universe (again, not counting those earlier cameos), as is the film’s villain.

That villain is named Steppenwolf, and he’s…underwhelming. He’s basically a harbinger of interdimensional doom who wants to unleash hell on earth and looks like he walked off the cover of a heavy metal album. He has an army of flying bug-eyed creatures called parademons and, look, the whole thing is pretty silly. The plot feels very compressed and viewers who aren’t familiar with the comic-book lore may very well wonder what the hell is going on. And while the big picture is clear (good guys must defeat bad guy before he unleashes hell on earth) the details are hazy.

Fortunately, I did like the good-guy characters. The movie has a better grasp of Batman (played again by Ben Affleck) than Batman V Superman did (Batman doesn’t kill anyone this time around), and Wonder Woman (the excellent Gal Gadot) is great. Aquaman (played by Conan the Barbarian Jason Momoa) and Cyborg (played by Ray Fisher) are fun characters, and the movie pokes fun at Aquaman’s much-mocked ability to communicate with fish. But the character who steals the movie is Barry Allen, aka The Flash, played by Ezra Miller.

Image: Warner Bros.

The Flash is easily the funniest character, and Miller steals every scene he’s in. Barry is a guy who really wants to do good in the world and is super excited to hang out with Batman and Wonder Woman and the gang, but he’s the first person to admit he may be in a bit over his head. “It’s great that you guys are ready to go in and do battle, but I’ve never done battle before,” he tells Batman. “I’ve just pushed people and run away.” The movie’s best lines all belong to him, and I’m looking forward to his solo film, although it’s still a few years away.

The special effects and action sequences are top-notch, which isn’t too surprising since Zack Snyder always delivers films that look and sound great, even if he struggles in other areas. There are a lot of fun superhero battles, and the movie has a much brighter color palette than previous DC Comics movies, which is nice to see. The characters look great and the costumes, weapons, vehicles and the like are badass, especially Batman’s awesome vehicles and Bat-tech. I also loved Barry’s wide-eyed reaction to seeing the Batcave for the first time: “It’s like a cave…a…bat-cave!”

The movie is much lighter in tone than Snyder’s previous DC films, which were heavily criticized for being too dark. There are a lot of jokes and funny moments (most of which belong to Barry) as well as a very funny scene involving Aquaman and Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth. I also got a kick out of Barry’s first meeting with Wonder Woman. “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana,” she says to him. Clearly smitten, he says to her, “Hello, Barry, I’m Diana. Wait, that’s not right.” It’s good to see Snyder having more fun with these characters.

Image: Warner Bros.

Justice League may not be up to the high standard set by the rest of this year’s comic-book superhero films, but I still enjoyed it. It’s hard to say how much the behind-the-scenes shakeups impacted the movie (there are several scenes in the trailers that aren’t in the film), but I still had fun with it. Maybe the Blu-ray release will include the director’s cut or something and we’ll be able to see some of the stuff that was left out. I still enjoyed Justice League overall, and while Wonder Woman remains the best movie in DC’s interconnected superhero universe, Justice League is quite a bit of fun, and 2017 was a much better year for DC movies than 2016 was, which is a relief.

Coming up next is something a bit different. For the past couple weeks I’ve been playing a lot of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. It’s a game full of Nazi-killing and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans, but underneath all that is a game that cares deeply about its story and characters, and has a surprising amount of real-world relevance, despite the ludicrous robot-laser-space Nazis. Join me next week for a discussion of one of the most provocative video games to come around in quite some time. See you then.

Thor Gets Thunderstruck in THOR: RAGNAROK

Marvel is on a roll this year. They’ve released three new installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok), as well as Logan, Hugh Jackman’s poignant final appearance as Wolverine.

And I loved all four of those movies.

The latest is THOR: RAGNAROK, which is absolute loads of fun.

Image: Marvel/Disney

The standalone Thor films are generally regarded as some of the weaker entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or MCU. They’re not terrible by any means, but they’re not as good as the Captain America or Avengers films, for example. Ragnarok is by far the best solo Thor movie and one of the best MCU movies in general.

The movie was directed by a New Zealander named Taika Waititi, previously known for two well-received independent films, What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople. I haven’t seen either of those films, but I’ve heard lots of great things about them. Ragnarok is Waititi’s first foray into big-budget blockbuster filmmaking, and he nails it. He perfectly captures the humor, beautiful visuals, and exciting action scenes that MCU movies have become known for. His style is the perfect fit for Thor.

Ragnarok is a surprisingly hilarious movie, and is right up there with Spider-Man: Homecoming and the Guardians of the Galaxy films as one of the funniest Marvel movies. The cast has great chemistry and there are more funny lines and moments than I can even remember off the top of my head as I’m writing this. Waititi has said that much of the dialogue was improvised, which shows how good the actors are together.

Chief among them are Chris Hemsworth as the heroic Thor and Tom Hiddleston as his mischievous adopted brother Loki. Both actors have been playing these roles since 2011, and they’re both fantastic. Their relationship is consistently interesting and funny, and it’s so much fun to watch the two actors bounce off each other. Even though they’ve been playing these characters for more than half a decade, the tempestuous relationship between the brothers doesn’t feel stale, and is one of the best things about the movie.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the plot, since the film is still brand new. Suffice to say that Thor and his pals have got their hands full this time around, since the film’s villain is easily one of my favorite villains of the year.

Her name is Hela.

She is the goddess of death.

She is played by Cate Blanchett.

She’s awesome.

Image: Marvel/Disney

“Oh, I’ve missed this,” she purrs, after making short work of Asgard’s armies. She is a force to be reckoned with, and Blanchett plays her perfectly. She reminded me a bit of Cruella de Ville, although perhaps Maleficent would be a better comparison. Either way, she’s fantastic, and Blanchett looks like she’s having a great time playing her. Hela is easily one of the best MCU villains, and just might be my number-one villain of 2017.

The movie is a joy to look at. The different settings in which the movie takes place all look gorgeous, as do the denizens that populate them. The movie is full of eye candy and the visual effects are among the best I’ve ever seen. Between Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Thor: Ragnarok, Marvel movies have been killing it with cutting-edge visual effects that are wondrous to behold.

The action scenes are exciting and will really get your blood pumping, and the movie contains two excellent uses of Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” which was also used to great effect in the film’s trailers. “Immigrant Song” includes the lyric “Valhalla, I am coming,” so it’s perfect for Thor. And everyone knows that Thor is the God of Thunder, but in Ragnarok we get to see him cut loose with his thunder and lightning powers in ways we haven’t seen onscreen before. The results are fun and badass, which is everything Thor needs to be.

Image: Marvel/Disney

And let us not forget the green elephant in the room. That of course would be the HULK, who hasn’t been seen onscreen since 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. He’s played once again by Mark Ruffalo, who perfectly embodies Bruce Banner’s absolute bafflement in finding himself on an alien planet with no idea how he got there. The Hulk is a very fun character and it’s great to see him portrayed so well, after Marvel’s first two Hulk movies (2003’s Hulk and 2008’s The Incredible Hulk) met with mixed results.

The film’s trailers, posters, and other marketing material heavily promoted Hulk’s role in the film, which does somewhat lessen the impact of his initial appearance in the movie. There’s quite a lot of buildup to the not-so-jolly green giant’s big introduction, but if you’ve seen any of the movie’s posters or trailers, you already know what’s coming, so the moment doesn’t resonate as strongly as it would have if Hulk’s involvement had been less highly publicized.

Image: Marvel/Disney

Still, it’s hard to fault Marvel for promoting Hulk’s involvement, not to mention it would have been very difficult in this modern smartphone era to keep it a secret. It’s a bit of a missed opportunity though, since if Hulk had appeared with no one having had any idea he was going to be in the film, minds would have been blown. Mind you, I’m not criticizing Hulk’s inclusion in the movie, merely the way Marvel chose to promote it. Hulk fits right in to the story, and the scenes with Thor and Hulk are hilarious and give parts of the film a buddy-comedy vibe.

Image: Marvel/Disney

There are some new characters, such as the hard-drinking badass Valkyrie played by Tessa Thompson (of Creed and Westworld fame) and the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum at his most Jeff Goldblum-iest. These characters are a lot of fun, and I look forward to hopefully seeing more of them in future movies. There’s also Skurge, played by Karl Urban. Skurge is the only character who felt unnecessary to me. I like Karl Urban a lot but his character seemed like a bit of an afterthought.

There’s also Korg, played by Taika Waititi himself, although you’d never realize it because Korg is some kind of rock monster. He’s a very funny and likable rock monster though, and proves to be a strong ally for Thor and his pals. Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin and Idris Elba as Heimdall, and it’s fun to see both of them again. There’s also a brief but fun cameo from a certain Sorcerer Supreme, as well as the expected cameo from Stan Lee.

Thor: Ragnarok is a film that succeeds on every level. It’s quirky and weird and hilarious and beautiful and exciting and absolute tons of fun. If you weren’t impressed by previous Thor films, give this one a try. It just might change your mind.

On November 17, another big superhero movie lands in theaters. That movie is Justice League, and it’s got a lot to live up to after four excellent Marvel movies and the also-excellent Wonder Woman. We’ll have to wait and see if it can live up to the high standard of those movies, but in the meantime there’s another reason to head to the theater this weekend. It’s Murder on the Orient Express, and we’ll be talking about it next week.

Blade Runner 2049 is as Good as Belated Sequels Get

Confession time: the first time I saw Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi film Blade Runner, I didn’t much care for it. Please don’t judge me too harshly.

This could be because I saw it on TV and it was probably edited to some extent. This could also be because the version I saw was the original theatrical version, which most fans of the film agree to be inferior to later versions. But I think the most likely reason of all was that it did not conform to my expectations. I expected a rollicking, action-packed thrill ride. What I got instead was a dark, moody, slow-burning sci-fi noir. It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I have a much greater appreciation for it now. Scott’s Blade Runner is a stone-cold classic and has been hugely influential on generations of filmmakers and writers.

The idea of a sequel coming out some 35 years after the release of the original film could lead to understandable skepticism. We all know what happened with that last Indiana Jones movie, after all. But I am happy to say that the new film, Blade Runner 2049, is an excellent sequel. People have called it one of the best sequels ever made, and it’s hard to disagree.

Image: Warner Bros.

The new movie was directed by the brilliant French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. I haven’t seen all of his films, but the ones I have seen (Prisoners, Sicario, and Arrival) were all excellent. Villeneuve is one of the best directors working today, and he has delivered another near-masterpiece with Blade Runner 2049.

Villeneuve’s film stays true to Scott’s beloved original in tone, style, and content. The cinematographer was the great Roger Deakins, and the movie looks amazing. It brilliantly recaptures the iconic look of the original movie while also providing new environments and landscapes that fit right in with the world these films have created. If Deakins doesn’t finally win an Oscar for his work on this film, then the Academy Awards are officially Dead To Me.

Image: Warner Bros.

But aside from the eye-popping visuals, the film is rich in ideas and emotion. One of the main questions the original film presented was: what does it mean to be human? If it becomes possible to one day create synthetic beings so lifelike they’re virtually indistinguishable from real people, who’s to say those synthetic beings aren’t human? HBO’s Westworld recently pondered similar questions, and they’re as relevant and intriguing now as they were when the first movie was released in 1982.

Much has been made of Harrison Ford’s return to the world he helped create, although (this could be considered a minor spoiler) he doesn’t actually appear in the new movie until it is more than half over. Most of the movie rests on the shoulders of Ryan Gosling, and he is more than up to the task of carrying the film. Gosling’s performance here is superb and absolutely Oscar-worthy.

Image: Warner Bros.

For those of you unfamiliar with the story, here’s a quick recap. The original movie took place in 2019, and followed Ford’s character Rick Deckard as he attempted to track down four rogue replicants. Replicants were created by the Tyrell Corporation to serve as off-world slave labor, but after a series of violent rebellions, they became outlawed. Blade Runners such as Deckard were cops who specialized in tracking down and “retiring” replicants.

Gosling’s character, known simply as K for most of the movie, is a Blade Runner hunting down replicants in 2049, thirty years after the events of the original film. I’m not going to go into much detail about the plot, since I really want to avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that K’s background is complex and is an integral part of the film’s plot. It becomes necessary for him to track down Deckard, who hasn’t been seen for thirty years. When we do finally meet Deckard, he’s tired and worn out. It’s some of the best acting Ford has done in recent years. He does a great job capturing Deckard’s cynicism and world-weariness, and is soulful and sympathetic.

Image: Warner Bros.

In addition to Deckard and K, the rest of the characters are equally fascinating. Robin Wright plays K’s no-bullshit boss Lieutenant Joshi, Jared Leto plays a creepy evil industrialist named Niander Wallace (who now owns the company that makes replicants and has made a fortune producing a new, more obedient series of replicants), and an actress named Sylvia Hoeks plays Wallace’s main henchwoman, disarmingly named Luv. Despite her name, she is not to be messed with, and provides a fierce adversary for K as he attempts to locate Deckard.

There’s also the lovely Cuban actress Ana de Armas as a character named Joi (pronounced like the word joy), who is, for lack of a better word, K’s companion. No, not that kind of companion. She offers him support and guidance despite, let’s just say, not being entirely human. I found the relationship between K and Joi to be quite fascinating, and genuinely moving at times.

There’s a lot more I could say about the plot, but I’m not going to because this is a movie you should experience for yourself. I will say that I loved the film’s plot. The filmmakers did an incredible job of telling a story that feels like a logical evolution of the original film, instead of just a flimsy excuse to make another movie and make more money. Blade Runner 2049 is a movie made with immense care and attention to detail. It feels completely faithful to the original.

I wouldn’t call either Blade Runner movie an action movie. Both movies are deliberately paced, and while there are fights and chases, the emphasis isn’t on the action scenes. Both films have a long way to go and are in no particular hurry to get there. The new movie is nearly three hours long, but it didn’t feel that long to me. It immediately sweeps the viewer up into the vivid world it creates, and it’s the kind of world that is thrilling to explore, but you probably wouldn’t want to live in it.

Every aspect of this movie is Oscar-worthy, from the production design to the writing to the acting to the directing to the special effects to the cinematography. Every one of those things from the first movie became iconic, and it’s easy to see the same thing happening with the new movie. Denis Villeneuve and his team did an incredible job crafting this film, and they have made Blade Runner 2049 every bit as emotionally resonant and thematically rich as its esteemed predecessor, which is no small feat.

Coming up next, in The Foreigner Jackie Chan will show us that it doesn’t matter if you’re in your sixties, you can still kick ass.

The Dark Tower Beckons You

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King’s sci-fi/fantasy epic Dark Tower series. It’s such a great first sentence. It pulls you in and makes you wonder who these people are, and why one is chasing the other. It’s such an evocative sentence that King wrote eight books from it.

For a while, it looked like the man in black fled across the desert, and Hollywood followed. This is because a film adaptation of the Dark Tower saga has been in the works for years, with multiple directors and stars attached. The version that ended up being made was directed by Danish filmmaker Nikolaj Arcel, and stars Idris Elba as the gunslinger and Matthew McConaughey as the man in black.
I’ve only read two of the eight Dark Tower books, so I’m no expert, but I have a passing familiarity with the series. King loves to fill his books with references to his other books, and his multi-dimensional Dark Tower series encompasses pretty much all of them. Fittingly, the film is full of references to other Stephen King works. I caught references to The Shining, Misery, It, Christine, Cujo, The Shawshank Redemption, 1408, and Mr. Mercedes. There were probably some that I missed, too.

Image: Sony

The film has had a long road to cinemas. There was some controversy regarding the casting of Elba as the gunslinger, since Elba is black and in the books the character is white. But King himself has stated he doesn’t care if the character is portrayed as black or white, and Elba is a good enough actor that his casting never bothered me. Also, there was the announcement that the film would be a sequel of sorts to the books, which sounded…odd. But then, how else are you supposed to adapt eight richly-detailed books that span several thousand pages into a film? Some liberties have to be taken, although adapting such a complex and beloved book series is always a risky proposition.

And the results in this case are mixed. The film got terrible reviews and scored a modest box-office opening. It’s not a terrible movie, but it could have been a hell of a lot better.

The movie’s audience surrogate character is 11-year old Jake Chambers, who has been having vivid dreams about a man in black attempting to destroy a tower and bring about the end of the world, and a lone gunslinger who seeks to stop him. The world has been suffering from a string of severe earthquakes, and Jake can’t help feeling that the earthquakes and his dreams are somehow related.

Long story short: he’s right. I try to avoid spoilers for brand new films, so I won’t go into too much detail, but Jake ends up traveling through a portal into another world, where he meets Roland, the gunslinger he had seen in his dreams. From Roland, Jake learns about the Dark Tower, which stands at the center point of the universe. The man in black wants to destroy the tower, the destruction of which would allow monsters from other dimensions to invade and destroy us. Or…something like that.

The movie’s main problem is that it feels too conventional. The setting of the books is a dreamlike sci-fi/western that’s kind of like a cross between the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood. The world(s) of the film don’t feel nearly as unique. The book’s protagonist is an interdimensional cowboy/knight who wields revolvers forged from the steel of Excalibur. That’s probably the coolest sentence I’ve ever written, but the movie doesn’t live up to the coolness and weirdness of the books, instead feeling like a somewhat generic sci-fi thriller.

Image: Sony

That’s not entirely a bad thing, since the movie is entertaining enough, but it’s a shame that it doesn’t have more personality. There are some fun, exciting action sequences (Roland can do some badass things with those revolvers) but the plot feels rushed and the stakes don’t feel high enough. Part of this is due to the surprisingly brief 95-minute running time of the film. The advantage of the short running time is that there is no fat: everything in the movie has a point. The disadvantage is that the characters and conflicts aren’t given enough time to breathe. Roland and the man in black are supposed to be eternal enemies, but the movie gives all of one scene to establish their antagonism, so their enmity doesn’t register as strongly as it should.

But Elba and McConaughey are both very good. In my post about Atomic Blonde I talked about my theory of coolness, which is that coolness speaks for itself. Both Elba and McConaughey are perfect examples of that. They are cool as hell, and so are their characters in this film. Elba is a grumpy badass with a heart of gold, while McConaughey seems to relish playing an evil multidimensional sorcerer who kills people simply by telling them to stop breathing. How would it not be fun to play those characters? The young actor who plays Jake is named Tom Taylor, I believe making his big-screen debut. He’s very good, and there are some genuinely sweet and often funny interactions between Jake and Roland. There are also some funny fish-out-of-water moments when Jake brings Roland into our world, which reminded me of Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in Wonder Woman.

You’ll probably hear a lot about how this movie is terrible and it ruins the legacy of King’s books and it sucks and it’s the worst adaptation ever and so on and so forth. I think that kind of hyperbolic nonsense is a load of hogwash. The movie isn’t an abomination. It has entertaining sequences and performances, but the direction is lackluster and the truncated plot can’t help but feel rushed. Its biggest sin is that it takes the surreal, dreamlike quality of King’s novels and turns them into a run-of-the-mill sci-fi thriller. It’s an entertaining way to spend 95 minutes, but it doesn’t have much staying power. A prequel TV series in reportedly in the works, so we may not have seen the last of this series on the screen. Given the sprawling nature of the story, it seems like a better fit for TV anyway. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Coming up next is…well, I’m not sure. I was going to write about Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, but it’s not playing near me so I’m going to have to put that on hold. I’ve got some other ideas I’ve been kicking around, so I’ll probably go with one of those. Tune in next week to find out which one I picked.

Spider-Man’s Welcome Homecoming

Spider-Man has been called the most put-upon superhero in all of comics, and that applies to his life off the big screen and the comic-book page as well as on it. Since 2002, there have been six solo Spider-Man movies (not counting his appearance in Captain America: Civil War), he’s been played by three different actors and rebooted twice. His latest adventure, Spider-Man: Homecoming, is a co-production between two major studios (Marvel and Sony) and has exactly SIX credited screenwriters.

Given all that turmoil, it’s remarkable that the new movie is as good as it is. And make no mistake: the new movie is very good. It captures the essence of Spider-Man and reminds us of what makes the character so appealing, all while telling an original story that stands on its own and connects to the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) in a logical and meaningful way.

Image: Sony

If you think that yet another Spider-Man origin story doesn’t sound very appealing, then you’re in luck: Homecoming is not an origin story. Here are things we do not see happen in Spider-Man: Homecoming: Peter getting bitten by a radioactive spider, and Uncle Ben dying. The makers of Homecoming know that we have seen these things multiple times before, so they don’t bother rehashing them. Also, Peter Parker doesn’t take any pictures, there is no mention of the Daily Bugle or J. Jonah Jameson, we don’t hear anything about great power and great responsibility, and Peter doesn’t even call Aunt May “Aunt May.” He just calls her May.

Which makes sense, because May is played by Marisa Tomei and is much younger than her previous onscreen incarnations. She’s great, fiery and self-sufficient. She’s more of a help to Peter, instead of the hindrance she usually is in comics and movies. She helps him out instead of just being another problem to make his life more difficult. She even tells Peter to cut the bullshit at one point, and it’s hard to imagine hearing that from the Aunt May of previous films.

This is but one example of how the filmmakers have made the familiar world of Spider-Man feel fresh and new. In this version, Spider-Man’s suit is made by none other than Tony Stark, and comes with a wide variety of hidden secrets. It even has its own AI, silkily voiced by Jennifer Connelly, whom Peter dubs “Karen.” Peter and Karen have many funny interactions, especially since she knows more about the suit than he does.

I’ve somehow forgotten to mention that Spider-Man is played by Tom Holland, a 21-year-old Brit who is 100% convincing as a fifteen-year-old American high school student. Holland perfectly captures Peter’s youthful exuberance, while still conveying his soulfulness and intelligence. Homecoming isn’t an origin story, but it does take place early on in Spider-Man’s superheroic career. As such, he isn’t always as graceful as we’ve seen in previous films. In one very funny scene, he tears through people’s backyard fences and knocks over treehouses in his dogged but somewhat hapless pursuit of the bad guys, and in a couple places he straight-up faceplants instead of landing on his feet. He’s very vulnerable, which is one of Spider-man’s defining characteristics, and a big part of what makes him relatable.

The movie lets us see him be scared a few times. It lets us see him mess up. Homecoming is less angst-ridden and more playful than the earlier movies, but it still emphasizes Peter’s humanity. It’s also very funny, easily one of the funniest MCU movies. The filmmakers have said that the films of John Hughes were a big influence on Homecoming (and there’s even a brief clip from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in one scene). It’s a breezy and very fun movie, while still being emotional when it needs to be.

Image: Sony

It also does not repeat one of the biggest mistakes made by the earlier movies (namely Spider-Man 3 and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) in that it does not have too many villains. There is ONE main villain, which is all there needs to be. It helps that said villain is played by Michael Keaton, who seems to like playing characters associated with flying creatures. First Batman, then Birdman, and here, Keaton plays Adrian Toomes, aka the Vulture. This is a character who has not been seen on the big screen before, and the filmmakers have given him a motive that makes sense and connects nicely to the larger Marvel Cinematic Universe. Keaton is very menacing in the role, with a sardonic sense of humor. He’s easily one of the best MCU villains, and there’s a great plot twist that for once the movie’s trailers and advertising managed to not completely spoil, so I won’t spoil it either.

Spidey himself also looks great. The costume he wears is close enough to his original look in the comics to satisfy fans of the character, while adding a few tweaks. The filmmakers have also thought of a clever way to make Spidey more expressive, by making his eyes change size. In earlier movies, the eyes stayed the same size, but here they get bigger and smaller, which gives Spider-Man a wider range of expressions.
Peter Parker’s relationship with Tony Stark is another great aspect of the movie. They’re both huge nerds, Tony just so happens to be insanely rich and Peter is dirt-poor. Robert Downey Jr. brings the same sarcastic wit he’s brought to Tony ever since 2008, and he helps Peter learn a very important lesson: that he is more than just a fancy suit. This is a lesson Tony himself had to learn the hard way, and it’s important for Peter to learn as well.

The movie doesn’t skimp on the action, either. Highlights include a battle on a ferry which starts to split in half, a dramatic rescue atop the Washington Monument, and a climactic midair battle. I thoroughly enjoyed all of these, and it is always a joy to see Spidey effortlessly sailing through the concrete jungles of New York City, even if he does occasionally fall flat on his face. The movie also addresses what happens when there aren’t any buildings or trees around that are tall enough for Peter to use his webs on: he just has to leg it.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fantastic movie: full of colorful action, great characters and acting, it’s well-written and often very funny, and it tells a story that makes sense on its own while still fitting into the sprawling Marcel Cinematic Universe. It’s everything you want a Spider-Man movie to be, and it doesn’t get bogged down in franchise-building or sequel-baiting. It may not be quite as good Sam Raimi’s near-flawless Spider-Man 2, but in my opinion it more than qualifies as the second-best Spider-Man movie, which is no small feat. And as always with these Marvel movies, make sure you stay until the very end after the credits for a cheeky extra scene. I won’t spoil it, but remember, kids, patience is a virtue.

Next on my summer watchlist is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, but that won’t be out until July 21, so in the meantime I’m going to back a few months and talk about The Fate of the Furious. I saw it when it came out but for whatever reason never wrote about it, so I’m going to rectify that next week. And since it came out a few months ago and made about a bazillion dollars, I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has now expired, so I’m really going to dig into it. Tune in next week for a spoiler-filled discussion!