Avengers Infinity War: The End of the Beginning

The screen cut to black, and the credits started to roll. And everyone in the theater sat in stunned silence.

I suspect this was the case in theaters across the globe last weekend at the conclusion of Marvel’s epic Avengers: Infinity War, in many ways one of the biggest movies ever made. It’s a damn good movie, one with such a devastating ending that I simply must talk about it. I try to avoid spoilers for new releases, but in this case it can’t be helped so be aware that this post will include spoilers.

There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.

First off: there are a LOT of characters in the movie. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Star-Lord, Groot, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Mantis, Nebula, Wong, Loki, Heimdall, Shuri, Okoye, and the Mad Titan himself, THANOS.

Images: Marvel/Disney
Whew. One of the movie’s many pleasures is seeing combinations of characters that haven’t met before. I particularly enjoyed Thor’s scenes with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man and Star-Lord bonding over 80’s pop culture references. Infinity War is frequently a very funny movie, and many of the funniest lines and moments come as a result of these characters being thrust together in unexpected ways. The only characters that aren’t in the movie are Hawkeye and Ant-Man, and Ant-Man will be in theaters again later this summer in his own sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp. Don’t know about Hawkeye though, maybe we’ll see him in Infinity War Part Two.

Speaking of part two, it’s important to remember that Infinity War is the first part of a two-part story, and the two films were shot back-to-back. So as devastating as that ending was, keep in mind that this is NOT THE END. More on this later.

Infinity War is a movie that requires a level of patience from the viewer, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many characters and so many things going on that it can be an effort to keep up with it all. The movie follows one group of characters for a while, then switches to a different group, meaning that the viewer has to frequently reorient themselves.

This can be a bit difficult, but it’s not a complaint. Infinity War is a movie that requires the audience to engage with it. It’s not a mindless blockbuster. There’s a lot of intelligence and heart behind it, and it benefits from a decade’s worth of audience engagement with the previous movies. It doesn’t have to make the audience care about these characters because if you’ve been watching every movie for the last ten years then you already do care about them, which is another thing that makes the ending such a gut-punch.

There’s not a whole lot of room in the movie for individual character development, but there doesn’t need to be since we already know all the main characters. If I had to pick one character that I would describe as the most important character in the film, it would be Thanos, the greatest villain the Avengers have ever faced.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing Thanos since the first Avengers movie in 2012, and carefully introducing the Infinity Stones in various movies. Infinity War is the movie where it all comes together, and it’s incredibly satisfying. Thanos is everything fans could want from the character. As soon as he appears onscreen, which happens in the movie’s first scene, no one is safe. The stakes feel very real. One thing about the various Avengers’ solo films is that there’s no doubt the protagonist will survive to the end, but in Infinity War, everyone’s lives are very much at stake.

Thanos could easily have been portrayed as a generic bad guy, but he isn’t, and it is to the credit of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and actor Josh Brolin that Thanos is portrayed so well. The movie gives us some of Thanos’ backstory, and we learn that his home planet of Titan was overpopulated and everyone except him died. Since then, he has been trying to preserve life by conquering planets one by one and destroying half the population of each. This is a time-consuming process, and the powers of the Infinity Stones will give him the means to wipe out half the population in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Thanos doesn’t see himself as the villain. He sees his actions as being right, and is aware of the cost, but to him the preservation of life as a whole is worth the destruction of half of it.

Josh Brolin is excellent as Thanos, and his performance, the excellent writing and directing, and top-notch special effects make Thanos one of the greatest comic-book-movie villains of all time. I counted twenty-five characters in the list above, and all of their combined efforts are not enough to stop him.

Thanos wins.

Or does he?

It’s time, my friends, to talk about The Snap.

Despite all their efforts and the ferocious and thrilling battles that are waged along the way, the Avengers are ultimately unable to prevent Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones, and as Thanos and Thor grapple, Thanos extends a gauntleted hand…

…and snaps his fingers.

And people start to die.

It starts with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, Captain America’s best and oldest friend. He drops his rifle and disintegrates as Cap watches, helpless.

Others follow.

Falcon. Scarlet Witch. Black Panther. Doctor Strange. Star-Lord. Drax. Mantis. Groot.

And, finally, devastatingly, Spider-Man. Peter Parker. A high-school kid. “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark,” he says to Iron Man. He’s beginning to disintegrate. He collapses into Tony’s arms, sobbing. “I don’t want to go Mr. Stark, please, I don’t want to go…” he begs. Tony tries to comfort him, but it’s too late, Peter is gone, and Tony is left literally empty-handed, having just witnessed the death of a kid that he feels responsible for having dragged into this mess in the first place.

Oh.

My.

God.

I seriously didn’t get through writing that without tears.

Going into Infinity War, I was aware of the possibility of losing some of these characters that I love. But never did I think that there would be so many, or that their losses would be so devastating.

Especially Peter.

Batman will always be my favorite superhero, but Spider-Man is a very close second. I love the guy, and I love Tom Holland’s portrayal of him. Hearing the fear in his voice and the desperation in his eyes as he fades away tore my heart out and stomped on it, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in that crushing moment was also superb. Earlier in the film, Tony and Pepper Potts, his fiancée, had been talking about getting married and having a family, and later, a kid for whom he had become a surrogate father literally fades away in his arms.

I’m sorry, I’m crying again.

Judging from people’s reactions on the internet, I’m not the only person who was hit so hard by that.

But it is important to once again emphasize that THIS IS NOT THE END. Time for some theorizing and rampant speculation.

First of all, there is no way Marvel and Disney would kill that many franchises in one fell swoop. The Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel already has a release date for 2019, and there is already talk of a Black Panther sequel and more Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which logically would have to take place after the events of Infinity War. Also, Black Panther just made more than a billion dollars worldwide and became a cultural talking point, there’s no way Marvel and Disney would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry guys, no more Black Panther movies!”

I don’t doubt that some of these characters will be back. I also don’t doubt that some of them won’t be. We’ve probably seen the last of Loki and Heimdall, and it’s hard to see Gamora coming back after Thanos sacrifices her to obtain the Soul Stone. Another thing I do not doubt is that reclaiming what was lost will require further sacrifice. The survivors of The Snap are mostly original Avengers such as Thor, Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and War Machine. Perhaps Infinity War Part Two will involve the efforts of the older Avengers to find out some way of bringing back the newer ones, even at the expense of their own lives.

It’s also worth remembering that two of the Infinity Stones are the Soul Stone, which can bring people back to life, and the Time Stone, which gives its wielder the power of time manipulation (used to great effect by Doctor Strange in his solo movie, and used to much more nefarious effect by Thanos in Infinity War). It’s not hard to see how those could be used to resurrect some of the heroes we lost, but doing so will require the remaining Avengers to somehow get the Stones from Thanos, which will be even more difficult at half-strength.

If/when some of the departed heroes do return, their loss in this film will still resonate, and will still affect the survivors moving forward.

Who knows what will happen in the as-yet unnamed Infinity War sequel? All I know is that it’s due out on May 3, 2019, exactly one year from the day I am posting this.

And now the wait begins…

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2017 Villains: Best of the Rest

I saw a lot of movies in 2017, and there were so many quality villains that I had to leave some of them out of my year-end villains roundup, or that post would have been way too long. Here are the remainder of the bad guys of 2017, with a few dishonorable mentions at the end. Beware of spoilers.

The Germans in Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan’s brilliant World War II film keeps the enemy off the screen for almost the entire movie. The Germans only appear in one scene near the end, and Nolan never shows us their faces. They became almost a horror-movie villain, an unseen presence that lurks offscreen, ready to emerge at the worst possible moment and make life hell for the characters we follow throughout the film. By keeping them offscreen, Nolan makes the enemy forces closing in on the trapped British and French soldiers much more existentially frightening, and gives the film a sense of rapidly-approaching doom that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s masterfully done.

Dr. Vollmer in A Cure for Wellness

Jason Isaacs’ Dr. Vollmer was one of the most twisted villains of the year. I wrote a long post about this thoroughly demented movie a few months ago, so refer to that for more details. But in case you missed it, here’s a quick rundown: Dr. Vollmer is hundreds of years old, he’s so obsessed with keeping his bloodline pure that he married his own sister, he brainwashes people at his so-called wellness center and uses them to make a serum that prolongs his life, and in the climax of the film he sexually assaults his own daughter. If all of that doesn’t make him worthy of a mention on a list like this, then I don’t know what does.

Image: 20th Century Fox

Ghost in American Assassin

The adaptation of the series of novels by the late, great Vince Flynn pulls off a clever turnaround early in the film. After his fiancé is killed by terrorists, protagonist Mitch Rapp is determined to track down the man responsible for her death. He does so, only for the man to be killed by someone else moments later. This subverts the audience’s expectations of the movie as being a straightforward revenge thriller and gives Mitch a different motivation. He still hates terrorists and seeks to make them pay, and also maybe get the payback he was denied for his fiancé’s death. The man who fills that gap is the uninspiringly-named Ghost, a mercenary played by Taylor Kitsch. Ghost is basically what Mitch would be if Mitch ever went rogue, since Ghost was also trained by Mitch’s mentor Stan Hurley. It’s not dissimilar to Batman Begins, in which Bruce Wayne is trained by the League of Shadows and ultimately has to stop their plot to destroy Gotham. It’s a story that’s been done before, but American Assassin still does it pretty well, and Kitsch gives Ghost an air of menace tinged with regret, and you might find yourself feeling just a little bit sorry for him. He’s still evil, though.

Image: Lionsgate

Liam Hennessy in The Foreigner

It could be argued that Pierce Brosnan’s Liam Hennessy isn’t the main villain of The Foreigner, since he’s not the guy who’s directly responsible for the terrorist attack that kills Jackie Chan’s character’s daughter in the beginning of the film. But he’s still heavily involved in a lot of shady activity and is the focal point of much of the film’s conflict. He’s also a jerk who cheats on his wife and later has her assassinated (his wife is cheating on him too, but still). Brosnan does great work in the role, and even though calling him the film’s main villain may be a bit of a stretch, his scummy behavior and lack of morals make him worthy of inclusion on this list, and his comeuppance at the end of the film is deeply satisfying. He doesn’t get killed, but his scumbaggery is exposed to the public so he will have to live with the whole world knowing what an asshole he is.

Image: Universal

Luv and Niander Wallace in Blade Runner 2049

The disarmingly-named Luv is a replicant who relentlessly pursues Ryan Gosling’s character K at the behest of her boss, the uber-creepy industrialist Niander Wallace played by Jared Leto. Wallace is determined to discover the secret to making replicants capable of reproducing, because he can’t meet the demand for replicants as slave labor in off-world colonies. Wallace is the guy whose synthetic crops ended food shortages and his new breed of completely obedient replicants are more in-demand that ever. Some people in the world of Blade Runner 2049 might even call him a humanitarian, but whatever his motives are his methods are highly questionable. He doesn’t hesitate to send the fiercely loyal Luv to track down K and kill whoever gets in her way. The two of them are a frightening duo, and the performances by Leto as Wallace and Sylvia Hoeks as Luv are excellent, and prevent either character from becoming cliched or cartoonish. They’re scary because of how plausible they are.

Image: Warner Bros.

David Percival in Atomic Blonde

James McAvoy’s David Percival was one of the year’s more problematic villains. Problematic both in the sense that his antics cause plenty of trouble for the protagonist, and in the sense that his character is problematic from a storytelling standpoint. It’s way too obvious that he’s untrustworthy, and this takes away a lot of nuance from the story. He’s also a deeply unpleasant character who smokes and swears constantly and is an all-around douchebag. McAvoy is fine in the role, it’s not his fault the character is poorly written. And Percival deserves credit for making Atomic Blonde’s protagonist’s life extremely difficult, and isn’t that what all villains need to be good at?

Image: Universal

The Shocker, Tinkerer and Scorpion in Spider-Man: Homecoming

While the main villain of Spider-Man: Homecoming was Michael Keaton’s Vulture, the movie sneakily included three other villains from Spidey’s colorful Rogues Gallery. There were not one but two versions of The Shocker (the guy with the electric power gauntlets). The Vulture’s tech genius responsible for making most of the group’s high-tech weapons was the Terrible Tinkerer, an obscure villain from early in Spidey’s comic-book career. And finally, there was a fellow by the name of Mac Gargan, the guy Vulture meets on the ferry, who also shows up in the first post-credits scene. He’s recognizable by a scorpion tattoo on his neck. I admire the filmmakers for being able to include all these characters without making the movie feel overstuffed, and I hope we’ll be seeing more of them in the future.

Dishonorable mentions: Transformers and The Snowman

Transformers: The Last Knight and The Snowman were the two worst films of 2017 that I saw. The fifth Transformers movie was so bad that it killed the entire series for me. If there are any more Transformers movies, I’m not going to see them. It made me retroactively hate the previous movies, at least two of which I already hated to begin with. Michael Bay should be ashamed of himself for making such an appalling pile of rancid garbage. I’ve also written at length about the profound crappiness of The Snowman, which is one of the worst book-to-film adaptations ever made. The greatest villains of these two bags of cinematic excrement are the people responsible for making them.

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.

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!

Rogue One, Suicide Squad, and The Myth of The Extended Cut

Rogue One was an action-packed blast that I enjoyed immensely, but according to the movie’s editors and at least one of the main actors, it could have been a lot different. Will there ever be an extended cut of Rogue One? Colin Goudie, one of the film’s editors, suggests that there won’t be. Goudie says that the first cut of the film ran maybe ten minutes longer and that “There’s no mythical four-hour cut, it doesn’t exist.” Actor Ben Mendelsohn, meanwhile, has stated that there were multiple different versions of many scenes, saying, “We did have multiple, multiple ways of going at any given scenario, we had multiple readings of it.” Even Gareth Edwards, the film’s director, has said that the film’s ending is different from what it had been originally.

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All of this got me thinking. It seems like every other movie these days comes out on Blu-Ray slapped with a gaudy label proclaiming it to be the “Unrated Extended Cut” or the “Ultimate Edition” or some other superlative. And after watching quite a few of these extended versions of movies, I have come to the conclusion that the theatrical version is almost always better.

Take, for example, the puzzling cases of Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Both of Warner Brothers’ 2016 DC Comics tentpole movies arrived in theaters last year with a great deal of fanfare, and both were met with mixed receptions, to put it mildly. When the films were later released on Blu-Ray, they were both touted as being the Ultimate Extended Unrated Cut. But I watched both of these so-called unrated extended versions of both movies, and in neither case did the extra footage add anything of substance.

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The theatrical cut of Batman v Superman already carried a hefty two-and-a-half-hour running time, and the longer version adds 30 more minutes of footage, bringing the running time to a whopping three hours and two minutes. But almost none of that footage makes the movie better. It adds a few extraneous subplots, makes the violence slightly more bloody, and includes one f-word. Big freaking deal. It slows down the pace of a movie that already had serious pacing issues, and it doesn’t improve the movie.

It’s even more egregious with Suicide Squad. The extended cut of Suicide Squad is a mere 11 minutes longer than the theatrical version, and the changes were so inconsequential I didn’t even notice what the changes were when I watched it. I had to go to a website that does analysis of different versions of films to even be able to figure out what had been added.

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This is especially galling when you consider that Suicide Squad is also a film that went through extensive reshoots. Many of the scenes depicting the abusive relationship between the Joker and Harley Quinn were considered too extreme by Warner Brothers and left on the cutting room floor. You’d think that some of this would be present on the Blu-ray release, but tough luck. The 11 minutes added to the film are just filler, and none of the potentially interesting stuff is anywhere to be found.

More often than not, extended unrated versions of movies are just a marketing ploy. Exhibit A: Death Race 2 and Death Race 3, two direct-to-video sequels (technically prequels but whatever) to the 2008 Jason Statham flick. Death Race 2 and 3 were both promoted as being “Unrated”, which is bullshit for a variety of reasons.

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First, neither movie was released theatrically, so there is absolutely no demand for an unrated version of a movie that almost nobody would have seen in the first place. Second, the differences between the R-rated and Unrated versions of both movies are minimal, to say the least. I know this because I watched them. Are they bad? Yes. Do I like them? Yes. The main difference between the two versions is that the unrated versions include shower scenes for the attractive female leads, while the R-rated versions do not. Both movies do this. Does this mean that the unrated versions are better? Obviously yes, but that’s not the point. The point is that there is no reason for these scenes to have been deleted in the firt place, and adding them back in simply means that the makers of these films can slap UNRATED on the DVD covers.

But who cares about direct-to-video action movies that not many people see, you might ask? All right, try this on for size. Recently I watched the extended cut of Sam Raimi’s 2004 superhero classic Spider-Man 2 with my family, and the reaction was unanimous: the theatrical version was way, way better. The extended version still captures the soul of the movie, but it changes certain scenes and adds more to other scenes that makes them go on for far too long.

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The extraordinary thing in all of this is that films are edited in such a way that watching the original version, you’d never guess that anything had been cut in the first place. Footage that gets cut from movies gets cut for a reason, and the movie is almost always better off without it. Even with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it’s fun to see the added footage in the extended versions, but since the footage that was cut doesn’t contribute to the story in a meaningful way, it’s understandable why it was left out.

There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes certain scenes are cut because the studio thought the movie ran too long otherwise. The extended versions of James Cameron’s classics Aliens and Terminator 2 are quite good, because the added scenes expand on the story and add more depth to the characters. But in most unrated/extended editions, this is simply not the case.

I’m not a luddite who thinks that extended cuts of movies should not exist. It can be fun to see the stuff the filmmakers didn’t include. What I’m saying is that if you take the time to watch both versions, most of the time you will realize one of two things. First, you’ll realize that the differences between the two versions are sometimes so minimal that you’ll wonder why they even bothered. The recent Fast and Furious movies are also good examples of this. The differences in runtime between the rated and unrated versions of those movies is maybe two minutes per movie. And those movies make so much money that there’s no need to splash UNRATED on the DVD cover in order to sell more copies, people will buy them regardless.

And second, you’ll realize that the theatrical version of the movie, the version put in theaters for millions of people to see, is almost always better.

Just in case anyone was wondering, here are some of the sources I used, just to show that I didn’t make stuff up.

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/rogue-one-reshoots-star-wars-spin-off-editor-suicide-squad-john-gilroy-cgi-tarkin-trailer-a-new-hope-a7519996.html

http://www.slashfilm.com/suicide-squad-deleted-scenes/

http://wegotthiscovered.com/movies/rogue-one-editors-say-theres-no-extended-cut-reveal-scenes-reshoots/

http://www.thewrap.com/ben-mendelsohn-rogue-one-different/

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Seriously guys, why can’t we be friends? Why are you fighting? Stop it! STOP IT!!

Ok, sorry, I just get so emotional sometimes. Captain America: Civil War is upon us, and it is a rollercoaster in more ways than one.

Superheroes fighting each other is nothing new, just a few months ago Batman and Superman threw down, but instead of two heroes clashing, in this movie there are an even dozen duking it out.

On one side: Captain America, Winter Soldier, Falcon, Hawkeye, Ant-Man, and Scarlet Witch.

On the other: Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow, Vision, Black Panther, and the Amazing Spider-Man himself.

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Wow, that’s quite the roster. Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in all but name. The only Avengers who do not appear are Hulk and Thor, and they are missed, but not too much, since the movie already has a plethora of costumed characters.

But what is the cause of these heroes’ disagreement? Basically, it has to do with accountability. The Avengers may be good at saving the world, but said world-saving is frequently accompanied by large amounts of collateral damage. The governments of the world have had enough, and seek to impose a new set of regulations to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark aka Iron Man is in favor of this, Steve Rogers aka Captain America is not, and the rest of the Avengers choose sides accordingly. There’s also a nefarious character with the catchy name of Zemo who is influencing events from behind the scenes, but to say too much about him would be to give the game away too soon.

I love this movie’s central conflict. It’s a fantastic setup because there are compelling arguments for both sides, which makes the character motivations clear for all involved. A movie with this many characters could easily become unbalanced. Batman V Superman for example was ungainly as hell with less than half as many superpowered individuals. But this movie has a clearer sense of purpose, and feels more coherent as a result.

Civil War throws a few new characters into the mix, with great success. Black Panther, played by Chadwick Boseman, is an excellent addition. Wearing a badass black costume made of vibranium, which is the same material Captain America’s shield is made of, and complete with Catwoman-esque retractable claws, the character makes a strong first impression and I am looking forward to his solo movie, which is due out in 2018.

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And let’s talk about Spider-Man. There’s a lot of cynicism relating to this character, due mostly to the fact that since 2002 there have already been five Spider-Man movies, presenting two different origin stories for the character who has been played by two different actors. The idea of yet another Spidey reboot was not something many people were overly excited about, but if next year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming is half as charming as Spidey’s appearance in this film it could be something really special.

This latest version of the webslinger is played by a young actor named Tom Holland, with whom I was largely unfamiliar, but he really nailed it here. The movie presents Peter Parker as a penniless nerd who’s brilliant but so poor that he has to scavenge computer parts from the garbage. Tony Stark recruits him to join his cause and Holland has great chemistry with Robert Downey Jr. The scene where Tony first meets up with Peter is one of my favorite scenes in the film. It makes perfect sense that Tony and Peter would get along, since they’re both such huge science nerds. Peter Parker basically is a young Tony Stark, only dirt poor instead of filthy rich.

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And how can you not love this exchange:

Tony: You got a passport?

Peter: Um, no.

Tony: Ever been to Germany?

Peter: No.

Tony: Oh, you’re gonna love it there.

Peter: I…I can’t go to Germany.

Tony: Why not?

Peter: Because I…I have homework.

Tony: Okay, I’m gonna pretend you didn’t just say that.

Isn’t that great? I love it. Of all the major superheroes, Spider-Man is the only one I can think of whose origin is firmly rooted in being a kid, and this movie manages to capture that with only a limited amount of screentime.

It also bears mentioning that Aunt May is now a hottie. She is played by Marisa Tomei, who even Tony Stark refers to as Aunt Hottie, which makes Peter hilariously uncomfortable. Tony Stark is something of an authority on the subject, since as we all know he once went 12-for-12 with Maxim cover models. I’m not sure how I feel about Aunt May being hot, but…okay, that’s a lie. I’m totally fine with it.

Moving on, what makes Tony and Peter’s interactions work so well is emblematic of what makes the rest of the movie’s characters work. The dialogue and characterization are sharp, and most of these actors have been playing their roles for years, so they understand their characters very well and have natural chemistry with one another. Every character has a good amount of screentime and gets to show off his or her abilities in fun and creative ways. Each superhero feels important to the story and none of them are extraneous.

And the action sequences are fan-freakin’-tastic. The fight coordinators, stunt crews, and special effects technicians did amazing work bringing the many action scenes to life. There are a lot of epic fights in this movie, but the highlight has to be the centerpiece airport battle between Team Cap and Team Iron Man. It’s one of the best smackdowns in superhero-movie history, and must be seen to be believed. Just wait till you see the trick Ant-Man has up his sleeve, it’s a showstopper.

Captain America: Civil War was directed by brothers Joe and Anthony Russo, and they prove themselves to be every bit as adept at balancing the character beats with the ass-kicking action as they demonstrated in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which they also directed. The Russo brothers are also set to direct the next two Avengers movies, Infinity War Part One and Part Two, and we can rest assured that Earth’s mightiest heroes are in good hands.

I’m a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general, but the Captain America movies in particular are noteworthy for how each film builds upon the previous ones. The Iron Man sequels were uneven and Avengers: Age of Ultron, while still fun, didn’t quite live up to the high standard set by its predecessor, but every Captain America movie has felt like an expansion of the themes and stories developed in the previous entries, and it’s been really great to see the series evolve.

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Captain America: Civil War is one of those rare blockbusters that works on just about every level. It’s smart, funny, action-packed and balances a large number of characters and stories with aplomb. It’s my favorite movie of the year so far, and sets a new standard for future superhero films.

2014: The Year in Villainy

Another year, another roundup of cinematic evil. Join me, won’t you, on this delightful whirlwind of dastardly deeds, evil acts, and cinematic scumbaggery.

Artemisia in 300: Rise of an Empire

2014 villains artemisia

One of my two favorite villains of the year, Artemisia was smart, tough, and determined. Hell hath no fury, as they say, like a woman scorned, and Artemisia is ample proof of that. Eva Green played her with ferocity and more than a little charm, which made her somewhat likable in spite of being evil. She’s the kind of villain you love to hate, and she’s my pick for best villainess of the year. It was a good year for Eva Green playing sultry comic-book villainesses, she was also deliciously evil in the new Sin City movie, so give her an honorable mention for that one too.

The Winter Soldier in Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2014 villains winter soldier

Few movie characters in 2014, good or evil, were as straight-up BAD ASS as this sonuvagun. Holy CRAP he was cool. A kind of Darth Vader to Captain America’s Luke Skywalker, he’s a cybernetically-enhanced super assassin who’s skilled, fast, and lethal. The fights between him and Chris Evans’ Cap were some of the best cinematic fights of 2014. Actor Sebastian Stan is under contract for (I think) nine films with Marvel, so you can be almost sure that he’ll show up at some point in the future. I, for one, am looking forward to seeing him again.

Jeanine Matthews in Divergent

2014 villains jeanine

You don’t usually see Kate Winslet being evil, but I thought she was pretty good at being bad in Divergent. You knew she would turn out to be evil (especially if you read the books), but she didn’t overdo it, which I thought worked to the film’s advantage. Expect to see her again soon, since the film did well enough at the box office that the sequel was fast-tracked to March of 2015.

Electro, Rhino and the Green Goblin in The Amazing Spider-Man 2

2014 villains spiderman

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 suffered from a bit of Spider-Man 3 syndrome, in that it had maybe one too many bad guys. Although only two of them had character arcs, since Paul Giamatti’s Rhino was basically a glorified henchman, but still, the film as a whole was definitely a bit overcrowded. And I guess that some of their motivations for being evil were maybe a bit thin, but…oh, well. At least Electro’s flashy blue-white bolts of electricity were cool to look at. Sony is planning on making a whole movie devoted to Spider-Man baddies, so who knows what we’ll see from Spidey’s colorful rogues gallery in the future.

The MUTOs in Godzilla

2014 villains muto

I didn’t think of Godzilla as the bad guy in the latest movie that bears his name, he’s more of an antihero. The real villains were the Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms, otherwise known as MUTOs. Godzilla stops them from mating and making horrible horrible MUTO babies, which is something I think we can all be thankful for this holiday season. Thanks, Godzilla!

The Sentinels in X-Men: Days of Future Past

2014 villains sentinel

I debated with myself a bit over who the real villain was in the latest X-Men flick. Was it Magneto? Mystique? Bolivar Trask? You could make a case for any of them, but for my money the only indisputably evil characters in the film were the Sentinels, which were so badass and so good at their job of mutant-killing that they pretty much ended the world, and it doesn’t get much more evil than that.

The Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow

2014 villains mimic

How do you defeat an enemy who can simply reset the day to prevent itself from being defeated in the first place? That’s the question posed by Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi epic. The Mimics in Edge of Tomorrow were frightening and very, very original in appearance and design. Kind of like giant, robotic-looking, time-manipulating squid-creatures. I thought they were very cool, and they had a lot to do with making Edge of Tomorrow one of my favorite movies of 2014.

Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy

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Ronan the Accuser is an evil blue space warlord. Even if I had left out the word “evil” in that description and juts said that he was a blue space warlord, I’m sure you would have been able to fill in the “evil” part on your own. One of the things I liked most about Ronan was his Alan Rickman-esque way of saying things…very…slowly. I guess he’s not really all that much different from other cosmic warlords you may have seen in other sci-fi movies, but if you’re evil enough that it takes five protagonists to bring you down, then you’re doing something right. I mean, you know, from an evil perspective.

Conrad Stonebanks in The Expendables 3

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Say what you will about Mel Gibson as a person, I still think he’s a damn fine actor, and he looked like he was having a great time being evil in the third Expendables movie. I thought the movie as a whole was a bit dull to be honest, but Gibson was easily the best part of the movie for me. With a name like Conrad Stonebanks, your career options are pretty much limited to either professional wrestler or professional supervillain. Conrad Stonebanks made the right choice in Expendables 3, and we connoisseurs of cinematic villainy can be grateful for that.

President Snow in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part One

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Donald Sutherland’s President Snow deserves a shout-out for being reliably evil for three movies now. He seems to delight in inflicting psychological torture not just on the heroine of the movies, but on the nation he lords over as a whole. I always think he looks like a white-haired Satan, I mean just look at those arched eyebrows!! Downright devilish.

Shredder in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

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The Michael Bay-produced 2014 version of TMNT was certainly no masterpiece, but to be honest I still thought it was pretty damn entertaining, and I really liked the knife-shooting shredder. There was some evil plot to disperse some kind of chemical weapon over New York which was pretty inconsequential, I watched the movie yesterday and I’ve already forgotten the details, but hey, I can appreciate a cool character design when I see one, and I thought that Shredder was really fricking cool.

So there you have it, the cream of the crop of cinematic skullduggery in 2014. There are a lot of big-franchise movies due out next year, so we aficionados of evil have a lot to look forward to.

See you then!