Ant-Man and The Wasp is Fun but Underwhelming

It was always going to be hard to follow up Avengers: Infinity War. Even before the movie came out and everyone saw its devastating ending, the hype for it was so strong that Marvel’s next movie after it was going to have a tough act to follow. Ant-Man and The Wasp, while perfectly enjoyable in its own right, isn’t quite up to the task.

Paul Rudd returns as Scott Lang, the ex-con turned sort-of Avenger who has been under house arrest for the past two years following the events of Captain America: Civil War. He’s only got a few days left before his ankle tracker gets removed, and he’s trying to be on his best behavior. It’s only a few days! How hard can that be?


Marvel/Disney

Harder than Scott thinks. He quickly becomes embroiled in all kinds of shenanigans that make the prospect of being under house arrest for just a few more days much more difficult. He joins up with his old pals Dr. Hank Pym (played by Michael Douglas) and Hank’s daughter Hope (played by Evangeline Lilly), who are determined to rescue Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother Janet from the Quantum Realm, where she has been trapped for the last 30 years.

If you don’t know what the Quantum Realm is, then you probably haven’t seen the first Ant-Man movie. Basically, it’s when things get really, really, really small. Like sub-atomically small. Hank and Hope have devised an elaborate machine which will allow them to journey into the Quantum Realm to save Janet, and they need Scott’s help.

That’s all well and good, but the problem is that the audience doesn’t know Janet and has never met her before this movie. She’s played by Michelle Pfeiffer, which is fine, but she’s barely in the movie. Janet is not a character so much as an idea. The movie seems to think that if you like Hope and Hank then you’ll immediately be invested in their quest to rescue a person they both love, but sadly that just isn’t the case. I do like Hope and Hank but I was not very invested in the story.

This stands in stark contrast to Avengers: Infinity War, in which I was deeply invested in everything that happened. This extends to previous Marvel movies going back to last year. I was invested in Black Panther, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor Ragnarok, Guardians of the Galaxy 2…but I just didn’t care very much about Ant-Man and The Wasp. Saving Janet didn’t mean much to me. It couldn’t help but feel like a huge comedown after the galaxy-shattering events of the previous films.

I’m sure there was a reason this was Marvel’s next movie after Infinity War. They’ve got all this planned out, so Ant-Man and The Wasp probably serves a purpose leading up to the next Avengers movie. And no, I’m not forgetting about the first post-credits scene, which connects to the ending of Infinity War and leaves Ant-Man in a situation of dire peril. Maybe he’ll play an important role in fixing everything after Thanos wiped out half the universe. Maybe this movie will seem more important in retrospect, once we know more. But for now, the whole thing just feels insignificant.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate this movie. Like, at all. It’s very enjoyable and I had a good time watching it. I went to the theater expecting to be entertained, and I was. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it just can’t help but feel like a step down after the megahits that were Black Panther and Infinity War.

But let’s put all that aside and focus on Ant-Man and The Wasp by itself, without all the baggage of previous films. It’s a lot of fun. Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly (who plays the Wasp, in case you were wondering about the second half of the film’s title) are effortlessly charismatic and extremely likable. They’re both very endearing and appealing protagonists and the two actors have great chemistry. The movie was directed by Peyton Reed, who also helmed the first Ant-Man movie and does a good job balancing the action and top-notch special effects with the considerable humor.

Ant-Man and The Wasp is a very funny movie, buoyed by the chemistry of Rudd and Lilly and helped greatly by Michael Pena, an actor I am always happy to see. Pena plays Luis, Scott’s former cellmate-turned best friend and business partner. Luis is a hoot and gets most of the movie’s biggest laughs. He and Scott are trying to start a security company called X-Con with a few of their other pals from the first movie, and the four of them make a motley crew who are fun to spend time with. It didn’t even occur to me until after the movie was over that their company is called X-Con because they’re all ex-cons, which I thought was very clever as it continues a running joke from the first movie in a wryly subtle fashion.

There’s a villain, of course, whom Scott calls Ghost, a rather unoriginal moniker but an appropriate one given her abilities. She can phase through objects and has limited teleportation abilities, which makes her very hard to handle in a fight. She’s played by Hannah John-Kamen, who makes her a sympathetic figure once you learn more about her, while still making her a force to be reckoned with. A secondary villain is played by Walton Goggins, who’s having a busy year after playing the villain in the recent Tomb Raider reboot. Laurence Fishburne is also in the movie, and he’s always a welcome presence.

There are a lot of very fun action sequences which make creative use of the movie’s shrinking/growing technology, such as an exciting car chase late in the film which is one of the most purely enjoyable action set-pieces of the year. It involves the use of a giant Hello Kitty Pez dispenser, which is pretty hilarious and unlike anything else I’ve seen in a theater so far this year. There are a lot of funny sight gags and it’s easy to tell that the filmmakers must have had a blast coming up with creative ways to grow and shrink things.

Ant-Man and The Wasp is the rare case of a Marvel movie that suffers when placed in the overall framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taken by itself it’s a very fun summer movie, albeit one hampered by a lackluster plot, but it still gets more things right than it does wrong. It’s not the fault of the movie itself that it feels like a step down from previous Marvel movies, which is too bad. Maybe the decision to make it the follow-up to Infinity War’s brutal cliffhanger ending will make more sense once we have some more context. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Next post is going to be about SKYSCRAPER, Dwayne Johnson’s latest action spectacular, which was heavily inspired by Die Hard, which as we all know is the Best Movie Ever Made. Sounds like fun!

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Incredibles 2 is Sweet, Zippy Fun

One of the most amazing things about Pixar movies is that they never pander to kids. The people at Pixar don’t assume that little kids are dumb, and therefore kids’ movies can be dumb and it won’t matter. The people who make drivel like the Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks movies (if such tripe can even be called “movies”) don’t understand this, but Pixar does.

And thank God for that. Pixar movies are funny, sweet, emotionally resonant, gorgeous to look at, and have uplifting messages about the importance of family and friendship. Pixar’s latest film, Incredibles 2, ticks all those boxes.

Image: Disney/Pixar

Incredibles 2 was written and directed by Brad Bird, making his return to animation after a pair of live-action films, one of which (2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) was a hit, the other (2015’s Tomorrowland) was an expensive flop. Before those films, Bird made The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and the first Incredibles movie, all three of which are wonderful animated films. Incredibles 2 is a triumphant return to form for Bird and is absolute tons of fun.

It’s hard to believe that the first Incredibles movie came out all the way back in 2004, and the new movie picks up right where that one left off, with the Parr family in hot pursuit of the Underminer, a mole-like villain. The Underminer isn’t the movie’s main antagonist, but his appearance starts the movie off with a zippy action sequence that immediately puts the viewer right back into the movie’s world. Even after all these years, it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into such a fun setting.

All the voice actors from the original movie return for the sequel, including Craig T. Nelson as Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible, Holly Hunter as wife Helen, aka Elastigirl, and Samuel L. Jackson as Bob’s best friend Lucius, aka Frozone (who I now can’t help but think looks exactly like Kevin Durant). Sarah Vowell and Huck Milner also return as Bob and Helen’s kids Violet and Dash, who despite being fourteen years older now than they were when they voiced the characters in the first movie, have no trouble making Violet and Dash sound exactly the same as you remember. Also returning is writer/director Brad Bird as Edna Mode, the brilliant and eccentric maker of the Parr family’s super-suits. Edna has to make a new suit for baby Jack-Jack, the youngest member of the Parr family, who is manifesting several strange and unpredictable powers, which he has no control over because he’s, you know, a baby.

I love the idea of a baby with unpredictable superpowers, and Bob’s attempts to take care of Jack-Jack while his powers are going crazy are some of the funniest scenes in the film. My favorite scene in the movie is when Jack-Jack spots a raccoon outside their house and gets into an epic battle with it that tears through the entire backyard. I also loved Bob’s reaction to this, which is not horror but joy at discovering his youngest child also has superpowers.

Bob’s adventures in solo parenting come about as a result of Helen’s new job. She is chosen by rich industrialists Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (voiced by Catherine Keener) to be the face of a new campaign to legalize superheroes again, after they were made illegal in the first film. Their efforts are complicated by the arrival of a new villain calling himself the Screenslaver, a cunning hypnotist who uses TV and phone screens to hypnotize his victims to do his bidding, after which they have no memory of their actions while under his control. Its eerie how poignant that is. Still, the Screenslaver is one of the film’s weaker elements, since it’s not very hard to figure out who he really is.
While his wife is off doing superheroic stuff, Bob is at home with the kids. Bob loves his kids, but he longs to be out there with his wife being a superhero and saving the day. The film’s message is that being a parent and a loving friend and family member is also a heroic act, and that even though he may not be out there saving the day with his wife, Bob is still a hero to his kids. This message is touching and sweet, and like other Pixar films, it never bashes the viewer over the head with it. Nothing ruins an otherwise uplifting and welcome message like having it shoved down your throat, but Pixar movies never do this.

As he demonstrated with his Mission: Impossible movie and the first Incredibles, Bird is a very talented director of kinetic action scenes. Action is a crucial element to any superhero story, and Incredibles 2 delivers enough action for any summer blockbuster. Highlights include Elastigirl’s attempts to stop a high-speed elevated train which suddenly starts going very quickly in the wrong direction, and of course Jack-Jack’s epic showdown with that diabolical raccoon (side note: all raccoons are evil). There are many other fun and exciting action sequences, but to describe them would be to give away too much of the plot. All of them are great, and will keep the eyes of both kids and adults glued to the screen.

Everyone knows by now that Pixar movies always look great, but Incredibles 2 is nothing less than a technological masterpiece. The colors are bright and vivid, the animation smooth and fluid. The details on the characters are equally impressive. Their facial expressions and body language are expressive and every bit as distinct as flesh and blood characters. It’s surprising that there aren’t more animated superhero movies, since animation allows filmmakers to create action sequences that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve in live action.

In my opinion, Incredibles 2 isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, since the plot isn’t as strong and the mystery of the villain’s identity isn’t hard to figure out. There are also some other superheroes that show up that, while it is fun to see their various powers and costumes, don’t really register as actual characters. But the Parr family remains as likable, heroic, and easy to root for as ever, and the film is a ton of fun that will appeal to children and adults alike.

Deadpool 2: Family is Not an F Word

Family may not be an F word, but there are plenty of other F words is Deadpool 2. It’s ironic that a movie so full of brutal violence, profane language, and raunchy humor can feel so refreshing, but such is the case with Deadpool 2, which, like its 2016 predecessor, does not give a damn about being politically correct. This may be a superhero movie based on a popular Marvel comics character, but this is not a movie to take the kids to.

Images: 20th Century Fox

Deadpool 2 presents the continued misadventures of Wade Wilson, the “Merc with a Mouth,” the self-aware, superpowered killing machine with an endless sarcastic streak and terminal cancer, although his advanced healing powers keep his cancer at bay and also make him basically unkillable.

Not that that prevents anyone from trying. Through the course of the movie, Wade is shot, stabbed, sliced, punched, thrown through walls and windows, blown up, eviscerated, and even literally ripped in half. He survives it all and always has a quip to spare.

The plot this time around doesn’t have the immediacy of the original film, but it still provides plenty of fuel for often hilarious hijinks. The antagonist is Cable, a time-traveling cyborg assassin from the future who comes back in time to kill a teenage boy named Russell, in order to prevent him from doing some bad stuff in the future. Wade takes it upon himself to protect Russell, and mayhem ensues. If that synopsis sounds familiar then you’ve probably seen Terminator 2. It’s exactly the same thing.

Deadpool 2 may not be quite as fresh as its predecessor, but its still quite a bit of fun. Cable is played by Josh Brolin, who you may remember played the infamous Thanos in Avengers Infinity War, which came out less than a month ago. He’s been busy, and he’s quite good in Deadpool 2 as well, although Cable doesn’t get as much character development as Thanos.

Wade of course calls Cable Thanos at one point, leading to confused looks from the other characters. Part of what makes Deadpool so popular is his self-awareness, which means that he knows he’s a character in a movie or comic book or what have you, and will frequently break the fourth wall and directly address the audience. The movie is very funny, and judging from the raucous laughter in the theater where I saw it last week, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

It is impossible to talk about Deadpool without talking about Ryan Reynolds, who was born to play Wade Wilson. He’s so perfect in the role that not only is it impossible to imagine anyone else playing the character, it almost seems like Deadpool and Reynolds are the same person sometimes. Seriously, it’s uncanny. If you haven’t seen it, you should watch Reynolds’ recent in-character appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. It’s hilarious and takes the movie’s meta self-awareness to a whole new level. It’s been a joy to see the trailers and commercials for the movie, they’re all very funny and creative. It must be a dream job to think of ways to advertise this movie, since you’d be able to let your imagination run wild.

Reynolds also has a screenwriting credit, along with returning writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. There are several lines of dialogue that are different in the movie and in the trailers, which makes me think that there were so many good lines that they couldn’t cram them all in the movie, so they put the best ones in the movie and some of the leftovers in the trailers. The deleted scenes on the Blu-Ray should be hilarious.

It’s also worth mentioning that the Deadpool costume Reynolds wears in both movies is 100% perfect. Not only is it completely faithful to the character’s comic book appearance, it just looks fantastic on screen. It has a certain grimy quality to it, it’s not always bright and shiny. It has a lived-in feel, which subtly helps sell all the gruesome punishment that Wade endures. Wolverine’s classic yellow-and-blue costume may look good on a comics page, but there’s a reason Hugh Jackman never wore it in any of the more than half-dozen movies in which he played Wolverine. It wouldn’t look good on the big screen, whereas Deadpool’s red-and-black costume translates perfectly to cinema.

The movie was directed by David Leitch, who made Atomic Blonde and co-directed the first John Wick. He’s a veteran stunt coordinator who knows how to deliver kinetic, bone-crunching action. The action sequences in Deadpool 2 are white-knuckled and exciting, particularly a show-stopping truck chase that is one of the best vehicular action sequences I’ve seen since Mad Max: Fury Road. He’s also good at mixing the action with the humor, particularly in the lead-up to the big truck chase, where most of Deadpool’s newly-recruited team meets a variety of grisly ends, in one of the movie’s best and most gruesome gags.

As enjoyable as the movie is, it is of course not perfect. It’s a bit of a mess tonally, and can’t always seem to decide whether it wants to be serious or goofy, at times trying for both and ending up with neither. The plot is a bit formulaic and lacks the immediacy of the first film’s single-minded quest for revenge (MUST. KILL. FRANCIS.). There are more characters this time around, which makes the film a bit unwieldy, although many of the new characters are promptly offed in various creative and grisly ways.

Post-credits scenes in Marvel movies are nothing new, but Deadpool 2 has probably the best post-credits scene in any movie ever. It’s too good to spoil, so let’s just say that Wade takes it upon himself to correct some past mistakes, with hysterical results.

The Deadpool movies are violent and vulgar and most likely not to every viewer’s taste, but I’d be lying if I said the vulgarity wasn’t part of the appeal. If 20th Century Fox keeps making R-rated superhero movies this wildly entertaining, I’ll happily keep watching them.

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…

BLACK PANTHER: Wakanda Forever

Black Panther is so freaking cool.

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

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

Images: Marvel/Disney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2017: The Year in Villainy

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

The Skullcrawlers in Kong: Skull Island

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

Image: Warner Bros.

Gaston in Beauty and the Beast

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

Image: Disney

The Joker etc. in The Lego Batman Movie

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

Image:Warner Bros.

Donald Pierce in Logan

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

Image: 20th Century Fox

The Assassins in John Wick: Chapter 2

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

Image: Lionsgate

Ego in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2

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

Image: Marvel/Disney

Vortigern in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

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

Image: Warner Bros.

David and the Xenomorphs in Alien: Covenant

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

Image: 20th Century Fox

Cypher in The Fate of the Furious

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

Image: Universal

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

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

Image: Disney

Ahmanet in The Mummy

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

Image: Universal

Ares, General Ludendorff and Dr. Maru in Wonder Woman

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

Image: Warner Bros.

The Vulture in Spider-Man: Homecoming

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

Image: Marvel/Disney

Bats, Buddy and Doc in Baby Driver

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

Image: Sony Pictures

Hela in Thor: Ragnarok

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

Image: Marvel/Disney

Steppenwolf in Justice League

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

Image: Warner Bros.

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

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

Image: Lucasfilm

Pennywise in IT

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

Image: Warner Bros.

The Man in Black in The Dark Tower

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

Image: Columbia Pictures

Poppy Adams in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

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

Image: 20th Century Fox

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

Justice League: The World Ain’t Saving Itself

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

Image: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

Image: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Warner Bros.

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

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

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

Image: Warner Bros.

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

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