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.

Advertisements

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.

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!

Wonderful Wonder Woman

After the twin disappointments of Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad last year, DC badly needed a genuine hit. Sure, both those films made plenty of money, but received awful reviews which hurt their long-term prospects, and led to a sharp drop-off at the box office between their first and second weekends. Fortunately, Wonder Woman is here to save the day, and her first-ever solo movie is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, and should have more staying power than her predecessors.
Wonder Woman first appeared in 1941, so it’s a little ridiculous that it took 76 years for her to finally get a movie of her own. It wasn’t until Batman V Superman last year that she even made her big-screen debut. When Israeli actress Gal Gadot was announced to play the character, fan reaction was mixed to say the least, but Gadot has proved the naysayers wrong by delivering a powerful performance, equal-parts badass warrior and believer in the inherent good of mankind, which is an attitude the world could always use more of these days. She’s just awesome.

Image: Warner Bros.

One of the advantages of not having had a solo film before is that a Wonder Woman origin story feels fresh. How many times have we seen origin stories for Batman, Superman, and Spider-Man? How many times have we seen Bruce Wayne’s parents die? So…many…times. The origin of Wonder Woman is a story that has not been told onscreen before, and even though it follows some familiar beats, it still feels lively, original, and heartfelt.
Wonder Woman’s real name is Diana, and she was born and raised on the hidden island of Themyscira, which was created by Zeus to protect mankind from Ares, the god of war. Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, who is the Queen of the Amazons, and was raised as a warrior, initially against her mother’s wishes. Her life is turned upside-down when a plane crashes in the water off the coast of Themyscira. She saves the plane’s occupant, who just so happens to be the first man she’s ever seen in her life. The man’s name is Steve Trevor, and he brings the Amazons grave news from the outside world. He tells them of a massive war, of millions dead, and of weapons capable of killing millions more men, women, and children. Again going against her mother’s wishes, she resolves to help Steve and goes with him to London. The year is 1918, and the war is World War I.

Image: Warner Bros.

Steve is played by Chris Pine, who has to be one of the most likable actors in Hollywood today, and the chemistry of Pine and Gadot is one of the movie’s great pleasures. Diana is a fish out of water in the modern world (modern by 1918 standards anyway) and there are very funny scenes of her attempting to understand this strange new world she finds herself in. Soon after she meets Steve, she asks him, “Are you considered an average example of your sex?” to which he replies, “I’m…above average.”
The movie was directed by Patty Jenkins, whose 2003 film Monster earned Charlize Theron an Academy Award for Best Actress. This is Jenkins’ first directorial feature since then, and she nails it. A character like Wonder Woman (although she’s never actually called that in the movie) can be difficult tonally, meaning that it can be hard to balance the more serious aspects of her character with some of the goofier ones, like the Lasso of Truth, which is kind of silly. But Jenkins makes it easy to care about Diana and Steve and the larger conflict unfolding, while also adding the right amount of humor. One of the biggest complaints people had with the previous DC movies was that they were too dark and joyless, but Jenkins’ film tells a serious and coherent story that is also a hell of a lot more fun than its predecessors.
It also nails the action sequences, providing thrilling action set pieces that are every bit as good as the Zack Snyder-directed action scenes from earlier films (say what you will about Zack Snyder, the dude knows how to film a fight scene) and are significantly better than the choppily-edited action scenes from David Ayer’s Suicide Squad. Seeing Diana in action is an absolute blast, she kicks all kinds of ass. The movie takes the potentially-absurd sight of a beautiful woman in a brightly-colored bustier striding into the no man’s land between trenches and turns it into something stirring and powerful. And give a lot of credit to Gadot for all the fight training she did, she makes Wonder Woman a butt-kicking force of nature.

Image: Warner Bros.

This is Gadot’s first real starring role, after supporting roles in Batman V Superman and the Fast and Furious series, among others. She gives Diana an almost-childlike sense of wonder at the world, and an eternal optimism that cannot be dampened. She’s naïve at first, but her character matures organically as the film progresses, and she comes to realize, with Steve’s help, that things aren’t as black-and-white as she thought they were. There’s also a great moment early on where Diana starts to realize just how powerful she is, and her little gasp of joy is perfect. Not since Sam Raimi’s original Spider-Man has a superhero film captured that sheer sense of joy that comes with discovering you’re more powerful than you thought you could be.
One weak point is the film’s villains. The performances by Danny Huston and Elena Anaya as the Evil German General and Evil German Scientist are fine but the characters are generic and don’t do much other than glower and cackle. There’s also a third, hidden villain, but I won’t say more about this character in the interest of avoiding spoilers. I will say that this character’s appearance makes the climax of the film a bit silly, but it’s a minor complaint. The lackluster villains aren’t a huge problem, since the film overall is very good, but it’s a bit disappointing that the bad guys are so bland.

Image: Warner Bros.

But it’s hard to complain when the rest of the movie is so good. It’s got great action and special effects, it’s more fun and less dark than other DC movies, and it has two terrific lead performances. We’ll be seeing Diana again later this year in Justice League, which hopefully will take more of its leads from this film than Batman V Superman or Suicide Squad. We’ll have to wait and see, but in the meantime we can all be happy that Wonder Woman is here to stay.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: Never Break the Chain

Thank God for James Gunn. In an era of grim and gritty superhero movies, here is a guy who looks at that and says, “let’s have some fun.” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Gunn’s sequel to his original Guardians of the Galaxy which was a hit in the summer of 2014, is finally here, and I am pleased to report that it is every bit as joyously fun as its predecessor.

Image: Marvel/Disney

I won’t say too much about the plot, since I generally try to avoid spoilers for brand-new films. But I will say that the story involves the mysterious parentage of Peter Quill, aka Star-Lord. I loved the film’s plot, it provided closure to lingering questions and did a great job of incorporating all the characters and making them feel necessary and vital. There are quite a few characters in the movie, and movies with such an abundance of characters sometimes struggle to make all of them feel important. Not the case with this movie, which manages to take Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket, Baby Groot, Nebula, and Yondu and make them all vital parts of the story, while also adding a few new characters. This is not an easy feat, but Gunn’s clever screenplay makes it look easy.

All of the things audiences loved about the original are here: the memorable characters, the eye-popping visuals, the humor, and the rockin’ soundtrack. The music is a vital part of the Guardians movies. Where else will you find epic spaceship battles accompanied by 70’s pop hits? Gunn’s movies are unlike other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in the best possible way. They’re playful and irreverent, while still delivering the thrilling action and emotional beats that make the best Marvel movies so enjoyable.

But let’s return to the soundtrack for a moment. I love the way Gunn incorporates the music into these films, and I think I liked the soundtrack in this movie even more than the first one. Every song fits perfectly, and many of them carry thematic significance, such as the Fleetwood Mac song that gives this post its subtitle. Gunn clearly put a lot of thought into which songs to use, and where in the film to use them, and he even manages to make a few of them part of the plot. By contrast, Suicide Squad is a recent example of a movie that tried to emulate Gunn’s excellent use of music, but didn’t do it nearly as well.

I would say that the movie is not quite as good overall as its predecessor, but just barely. The new film is a bit more cluttered and is slightly overstuffed. But this is a minor complaint, as it is still a heck of a lot of fun. It’s also a gorgeous movie to look at, and there is a wide variety of planets and environments that our misfit heroes’ adventures take them to, as well as many kinds of alien races and creative vehicles and weaponry, so there is no shortage of eye candy.

Image: Marvel/Disney

The cast has great chemistry, and Dave Bautista as Drax deserves a special shout-out. Who knew that a former pro wrestler could be so damn funny? Drax gets some of the biggest laughs of the movie, and this is a movie with a lot of laughs. Gunn’s Guardians films are easily the funniest Marvel movies, and the humor never feels forced. It doesn’t feel like there are jokes just for the sake of comic relief, the humor is a natural part of the story and the characters. This is also one of the more trippy Marvel movies, only Doctor Strange can come close to it in terms of psychedelic visuals, particularly during the lengthy final battle.

And oh, how I love Baby Groot. I need to go on Amazon and see if there is like, a plush Baby Groot or something that I can get, because that would make me so happy. Not only is Baby Groot adorable, but he also gets to help save the galaxy, so he’s not there just for the sake of being cute and/or funny, although he is definitely both of those things. When he gets caged by space pirates and they’re being mean to him, I spent the whole scene thinking “LEAVE BABY GROOT ALONE!!” One of my favorite lines comes when one space pirate asks the space pirate leader “Can I squish it with a rock?” and the leader replies, “No, Jeff, it is too adorable to kill!” (Some of my other favorite lines include “Die, spaceship!” and “You suck, Zylar.”) And of course there is Groot’s immortal catchphrase, “I am Groot,” which can mean anything at all. The film’s characters are all great but Baby Groot is my favorite.

Image: Marvel/Disney

And let us not forget that this is a movie with a lot of heart. We learn more about the characters and their relationships and backgrounds, and everything we learn feels meaningful, and is often quite touching. Gunn is able to deftly balance the emotional beats with the humor and the big action scenes, and somehow the tone of the film still feels consistent. There’s so much going on in any given scene that in a lesser director’s hand it could all fall apart, but once again Gunn makes it look easy. Gunn is such a surehanded director that it’s hard to believe this is only his fourth directorial feature. I hope the success of Guardians will lead to him getting more directorial gigs in the future, in case you couldn’t tell, I love this guy.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2 delivers everything you want from a summer blockbuster. It’s smart, funny, well-directed, action-packed, and full of memorable characters. I could spend a lot more time going into details of specific scenes that I loved, but that would mean describing more or less the entire movie, and we don’t have all day. But suffice to say that I loved it, and I’m confident that you will, too. Also, be sure to stay all the way through the credits, because not only are there a whopping total of FIVE post-credits scenes, but the end credits also have several other little Easter eggs that are fun to look for. So go see it, have fun, and remember, I AM GROOT!

Logan: A Brutal and Epic Sendoff

For the longest time, I had a list of my top five favorite movies. They were Die Hard, The Dark Knight, Hot Fuzz, Casino Royale, and Gladiator. Then in 2015 Mad Max Fury Road was released, and my top five became a top six.

Well, now it might have to become a top seven.

James Mangold’s Logan is a deeply moving film, and I left the theater with tears in my eyes. I was saddened by the end of the film. Saddened by the end of a story I love, and by the fact that one of my favorite fictional characters will not be seen again onscreen the same way. But at the same time, it was a good sort of sadness, the kind of sadness that you feel when a story you love is over, but you feel that it couldn’t have ended any other way.

Logan is an aptly named film. In many ways, this is not a superhero movie. It’s not a story about Wolverine, the superhero. It’s a story about Logan, the man.

It’s also a story about the toll that all the years of fighting and world-saving can take on a person, even one with superhuman regenerating powers. This movie takes beloved and iconic characters and brings them lower than they’ve ever been before, and the results are breathtaking.

Unlike its predecessors, this is a not a family-friendly movie. Seriously, leave the kids at home for this one. The success of Deadpool last year paved the way for R-rated superhero movies, and Logan takes full advantage of the freedom provided by the R rating. This is a far more violent film than Deadpool, much more realistic and less exaggerated. There are buckets of blood and gore. Limbs and heads are severed, bodies and craniums are slashed and impaled in gruesome detail.

But the film isn’t violent just for the sake of being violent. The violence in the film comes from a place of character, and all of it has meaning. Fans have long wanted a Wolverine movie that lets him really cut loose with his claws, and this is that movie. One review I read described the movie like this: the language is blue and the violence is red. It’s a completely accurate description.

In the movie, which takes place in 2029, mutants are a dying breed. We’re told that no mutants have been born in 25 years. Logan makes a meager living as a limo driver, and hides out in a compound on the Mexican border, where he cares for an ailing Charles Xavier.

Logan and Charles have both seen better days, to say the least. Logan’s healing factor isn’t as potent as it once was, and his body has started to betray him in other ways. He wears reading glasses because his eyesight is starting to go, and when he pops his claws early in the film, one of them only comes out halfway, prompting him to look at it in bewilderment.

Charles is in arguably worse shape. He’s now in his nineties and is starting to become senile. He takes medication to suppress his seizures, and what happens when the world’s most powerful telepath has seizures? Nothing good. The first time we see Charles, he’s rambling incoherently and refusing to take his meds. He’s belligerent and uncooperative, and tells Logan how much of a disappointment he is, and accuses Logan of wishing he would just die so that he wouldn’t have to take care of him anymore. As a person with a grandparent with Alzheimer’s, all of this cut me right to the bone.

But even if you don’t know someone with a degenerative brain disease, it’s not hard to sympathize with Charles. This is a character who in his previous appearances has been the embodiment of civility and intelligence, a bastion of order in the chaos. To see him brought down so low is upsetting. It hurts.

This is a film that deals with things no other superhero or comic book movie ever has. It’s about getting old. It’s about the inevitability of death and the unstoppable current of time. It’s part western, part road-trip movie, part passing the torch to the next generation.

That next generation arrives in the form of Laura, an 11-year-old girl with the same powers as Wolverine, right down to the claws that come out from between her knuckles, who is being pursued by sinister forces. Logan reluctantly agrees to take her north to the Canadian border, to a safe haven for mutants that may or may not even exist, with the bad guys in hot pursuit. Along the way we find out more about Laura, where she came from and what she has already gone through, and the three of them, Logan, Charles, and Laura, start to become a family.

Laura is played by a young actress named Dafne Keen, making her big-screen debut. And she knocks it out of the park. Laura is silent and unexpressive for much of the movie, and when her ferocity is unleashed it’s truly frightening. The mystery of Laura’s origin is compelling and provides a strong driving force for the movie’s plot.

And it conveys so much about the personalities of Logan and Charles. Logan doesn’t want to help Laura at first. He doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore. But in the end, he can’t help it. He simply has no other choice. Charles does want to help her, perhaps feeling the same kind of motivations that led him to open his school for mutants all those years ago. Maybe he just wants some purpose to his life, some light in the darkness that the last years of his life have become.

It’s hard to tell exactly where this film fits in to the X-Men series’ cinematic continuity. The series has gone through several reboots over the years so it’s not clear what is canon and what isn’t. But that doesn’t bother me with this movie. I prefer to think of the X-Men films like I think about comics. They’re different interpretations of the same characters, and maybe they’re not meant to take place in the same universe. The point is that the fractured continuity of the X-Men film series doesn’t effect one’s enjoyment of this film. I don’t care if it takes place in the same universe or not, it’s still a superb movie.

And let’s talk for a second about Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart. The first X-Men movie came out in 2000. Jackman and Stewart have been playing Logan and Charles for nearly two decades. When we see them in such dire straits, part of the reason it’s so affecting is that we’ve never seen them this way before, and we have memories of them in better days. Seeing them brought so low would have been moving anyway, but the fact that the movie carries nearly twenty years’ worth of previous movies behind it lends it even more weight. Needless to say, both actors are magnificent in this film, in what both have said will be their final appearances as these beloved and iconic characters.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is thrilling, but not necessarily what I would call “fun.” The action is well-filmed and choreographed, and it is easy to tell what is going on. But again, this is not a fun movie in the way that, say, an Avengers movie is fun. I would equate the experience of watching it to something like watching Gladiator. Spectacular action scenes, but hard to watch because of the brutality and the sheer emotional weight. The movie is beautifully directed by James Mangold, who also co-wrote the screenplay. He also directed Logan’s previous solo movie, 2013’s The Wolverine, and has a strong understanding of what makes Logan a compelling character. He directs the film with skill and grace, and it really feels like he cares about the characters. He has created a riveting film, from its startling opening scene to its haunting final image.

The movie’s first trailer was accompanied by a Johnny Cash song, “Hurt.” The trailer was one of those rare movie trailers that turned out to perfectly encapsulate the feel of the film it was promoting. It captured the movie’s melancholy tone, while conveying the emotional strain of the pain these characters experience. The song includes the line “I hurt myself today, to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that’s real.” Logan and Charles live in a world of pain of all kinds: physical, mental, emotional. But the movie is about them realizing that there’s more to life than pain. There are things like love and family, and those things are what matter, those things are what last. It’s a lesson Logan and Charles have to learn the hard way, but it resonates throughout the film and beyond.

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.

rogue-one-poster

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.

batman-v-superman-ultimate-edition-blu-ray-cover-474x600

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.

suicide-squad-blu-ray-box-art

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.

death-race-2-blu-ray-cover

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.

spider-man-2-1-cover

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/