AQUAMAN: Everything’s Better, Down Where It’s Wetter, Under the Sea

We live in divisive times.

It seems like we’re more divided now than we’ve ever been. During these times, it’s important to have something we can all agree on.

Now, thanks to James Wan’s 2018 blockbuster Aquaman, we have that something.

That something, dear friends, is a giant octopus playing the drums.

Images: Warner Bros.

A drum-playing giant octopus is something that is objectively great. No one can deny this. It is a basic fact. After all, what creature could be more adept at drum-playing than one with eight limbs? Are tentacles limbs?

But Aquaman is, after all, a movie that cost a couple hundred million dollars to make, and presumably some of that money was used for things other than creating the magnificent creature that shall henceforth be known as The Octopus of Unification.

So, other than that majestic mollusk, how is the rest of the film? Turns out, it’s surprisingly fun.

If you’ve been anywhere near the internet, you’re probably aware that Aquaman is a character who gets made fun of a lot. He’s a guy who’s from Atlantis, rides on the backs of seahorses and can talk to fish. His sidekick was a kid named Aqualad. He’s pretty easy to make fun of. The memes practically generate themselves.

So, how do you make such a widely-mocked character cool?

Why, by embracing it’s inherent silliness and going all the way over the top.

The movie was directed by James Wan, best known for his horror films which include Saw, Insidious, and The Conjuring. He also made Furious 7, which is my personal favorite Fast and Furious movie. Wan is a very talented director, and Aquaman is a very fun movie with him at the helm (See what I did with that nautical metaphor?).

The movie is a visual extravaganza. Seriously, we’re talking Avatar-levels of visual effects prowess. The movie is chock-full of sumptuous eye candy. There’s a ton of CGI in this movie (Wikipedia lists eight companies that worked on the effects), which in the hands of a director like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich would get tedious after a while, but in Wan’s capable hands I never felt bored or overwhelmed. The sheer creativity and variety of the characters, creatures and locations in this movie consistently impressed me.

Think about it for a second. How do you make a movie where large portions of it take place underwater? You can’t put actors underwater, since, you know, they wouldn’t be able to breathe. Water-based movies are notoriously difficult to make, but how do you make a water-based movie and film underwater sequences without actual water? The logistics involved in the making of this film are mind-blowing.

I watched the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the Blu-ray and it showed that the actors were constantly suspended from harnesses for the underwater scenes, in order to simulate the movement of the water. It takes damn good actors to be able to act convincingly while suspended from a harness in front of a bunch of blue screens, knowing that everything around you will be digitally added later. Heck, even the characters’ hair had to be computer-generated for the underwater scenes, and Industrial Light & Magic had to upgrade their hair-simulation technology in order to get it right.

What I’m saying is the fact that this film works at all is a pretty massive accomplishment. It would have been so easy to screw this up, but the filmmakers put a ton of effort into making this movie a gorgeous visual feast that is truly a wonder to behold. There is nothing else quite like it. Has there ever been a movie before this one that featured armored war sharks, a race of warrior hermit crabs, and of course a drum-playing octopus? I don’t think so.

So we’ve established that the movie is a visual powerhouse, but what about the story? That’s more of a mixed bag, but it still ends up working pretty well. Aquaman’s real name is Arthur Curry, and the movie shows us how he is the son of a human lighthouse-keeper and the Queen of Atlantis. As such, he is only half-Atlantean, and is regarded as a half-breed by his younger half-brother Prince Orm, played by frequent James Wan collaborator Patrick Wilson.

In order to defeat his power-hungry half-brother, Arthur must go on a quest to find the mythical Trident of Atlan, and if that sounds clichéd to you that’s because it is. The trident is the movie’s MacGuffin, but unlike many other MacGuffins this one does have a purpose beyond just driving the plot forward. Accompanying Arthur on his quest is Mera, played by Amber Heard. Mera is a badass who has the ability to psychically control bodies of water…I think. The movie does a good job of establishing her as Arthur’s equal. She never needs rescuing and is anything but a damsel in distress, and Amber Heard has great chemistry with Jason Momoa.

Oh right, Aquaman is played by Jason Momoa, best known as Khal Drogo from Game of Thrones and as Conan the Barbarian, which let’s face it are basically the same character. We previously saw him in 2017’s Justice League, where Momoa showed he has the charisma and even the comedic chops to make Aquaman a fun character. He’s also an intimidating physical presence who is completely believable in the movie’s many action scenes.

There is a lot of action in this movie, and all of it is great fun. James Wan shows once again that he is a talented action director. I love the way he moves the camera during the action scenes. The camera moves a lot but it’s never shaky, it gives the action a very smooth and fluid feel. He also finds cool ways to visually connect multiple characters during an action sequence, which reminds the viewer that multiple things are happening simultaneously and provides a strong sense of spatial awareness. The viewer is always aware of where everyone is and what they are doing, so you don’t get lost trying to follow everything.

My favorite sequence has to be the one set in Sicily, where Arthur and Mera throw down with the villainous Black Manta and his crew of elite Atlantean soldiers. The sequence is a ton of fun, the setting is beautiful, the choreography and camerawork are excellent and Black Manta is extremely cool. There’s also a beautiful single-shot sequence where one of the Atlanteans crashes through the walls of several buildings, with the camera following close behind. It’s just terrific.

Black Manta is the movie’s secondary villain, and he doesn’t get as much to do as Arthur’s half-brother Prince Orm, but he still makes an impression. The movie is clearly setting up Black Manta to be a primary antagonist for future aquatic adventures, which are all but guaranteed given that this movie made more than a billion dollars at the box office. Black Manta is a cool-ass character and I’m looking forward to seeing more of him in the future. I hadn’t seen Aquaman when I wrote about the villains of 2018 (I only just got around to watching it this last weekend) but if I had Orm and Black Manta would have more than earned their inclusion.

This is not a perfect movie by any stretch. It’s overlong, the plot is predictable and not terribly original, some of the supporting characters are underused, and there are some clunkers in the dialogue. But it’s very fun and endlessly creative, you really get the impression that the filmmakers must have had fun designing all of the film’s myriad creatures. There are so many creatures in this movie that it practically qualifies as a Monster Mash movie. The ones I’ve described are but a tiny fraction of the overall population of beasts and critters that inhabit this movie.

While watching it, I found myself in awe of the sheer fact that this movie exists. It blows my mind that this movie was even made. That movie studio executives even signed off on this movie and all of its craziness is surprising to begin with, but even more impressive is the movie’s huge box-office take. This is the highest-grossing movie based on a DC Comics character ever. Who would have thought that Aquaman could beat Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman at the box office? Not me, certainly. This is my second-favorite of DC’s shared-universe movies (Wonder Woman is still my favorite) and shows that DC characters still have some gas left in the tank, despite the superhero-movie market having been largely dominated by Marvel for most of the past decade.

Aquaman is a big, beautiful, cheesy, flawed, ungainly, highly-entertaining beast of a movie. There’s nothing else quite like it. And if you watch it and decide that it’s not your cup of tea that’s fine. At least we’ll always have the Octopus of Unification.

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Avengers: Endgame Is As Good As Endings Get

When the Marvel Cinematic Universe began way back in 2008 with the first Iron Man, I was a nineteen-year-old college freshman. In the years since, I graduated from college, was the best man at a dear friend’s wedding, had four or five jobs, turned thirty, and wrote more than two hundred blog posts (this one is number 204, but who’s counting?)

Throughout my twenties, a third of my life, I’ve gone to the theater a couple times every year to see the newest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, and I’ve enjoyed every single one of them. Sure, many of them are far from perfect, but each movie has many things to enjoy. Throughout all these movies, I’ve come to know and love the characters, and seeing every actor reprise his or her role in each movie is like seeing an old friend again.

My attachment to these movies and their characters partly stems from the fact that I’m a lifelong reader of comics of all kinds and a superhero aficionado. Even then, many of the MCU characters were ones I had only a passing familiarity with, but since the MCU started I’ve read comics featuring many of the MCU characters, because I liked them so much that I wanted to hang out with them more. I’ve also watched a lot of movies featuring various Avengers cast members, because I liked all the actors so much too.

Whoever the casting director was who cast these actors, he/she deserves a lot of credit. In all of the literally dozens of characters that populate the MCU’s 22 movies, not once have I thought that an actor wasn’t well-suited to his or her role. And with very few exceptions, every character has been played by the same actor for the better part of a decade.

I mention all of this to illustrate how emotionally invested I am in this series. Like many people, I left last year’s Avengers movie, Infinity War, feeling like I had just been slapped in the face. The movie was amazing, and its ending left me utterly devastated. I watched Infinity War again the day before I saw Endgame, and that Spider-Man scene (you know the one) still hits me like a ton of bricks. After Infinity War ended, the idea of waiting for a year to find out what would happen next was agonizing.

Fast-forward a year and a few more movies later, and that continuation is finally here. Avengers: Endgame had a hell of a lot of expectations and hype to live up to, and it exceeded them all. From this point on, there will be spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens, what are you waiting for? Go see it!

Images: Marvel/Disney

That spoiler warning is doubly important when you consider that the movie’s trailers and advertising have spoiled nothing about the plot. There were some plot details that leaked before the movie came out but I stayed as far away from those as I possibly could so I was able to see the movie completely unspoiled. And it was GLORIOUS. I LOVED Endgame. It was everything I hoped it would be. It was tense, exciting, action-packed, emotionally resonant, and most of all, fun.

It’s an amazing storytelling achievement. It resolves Infinity War’s brutal cliffhanger ending, it brings closure to the story arcs for several beloved characters, and never once feels three hours long. Yes, this movie is three hours long, and not once did I feel like it was dragging on for too long. Those three hours flew by. The story is consistently surprising, the acting is excellent, the dialogue is sharp and funny, the chemistry between the actors is strong, the relationships between the characters develop in meaningful and unexpected ways, the action sequences are thrilling, and the final epic battle is pure cinematic bliss.

The movie was directed once again by Joe and Anthony Russo, who previously helmed Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Those movies had some of the best, most intense and well-choreographed action sequences of the MCU, and the Russo brothers pulled out all the stops for Endgame. The final battle in this film is epic in every sense of the word, bringing together nearly all of the major characters for a spectacular showdown that I didn’t want to end.

Like the rest of the movie, the final battle is so full of great moments that I can’t even remember them all. Captain America is worthy of the power of Thor! Captain Marvel arrives at a crucial moment to beautifully destroy Thanos’ mothership! Valkyrie rides in on a winged horse! Thor dual-wields Mjolnir and Stormbreaker! Ant-Man rescues the Hulk! The triumphant return of the characters we lost in Infinity War! All of these moments, and so many more, are immensely satisfying and an absolute joy to behold. I don’t have enough superlatives.

The epicness comes to a tragic end, as Tony Stark uses the Infinity Stones to evaporate Thanos and his minions, in a reverse version of the Snap that Thanos unleashed in the conclusion of Infinity War. But the power of the stones was too much for Tony to handle, and he dies, surrounded by his friends and family. It’s a full-circle way to end not just the movie but a decade’s worth of movies. The series began with Tony Stark, and in many ways it ends with him too.

Which is not to say that the MCU will be ending. Endgame has already made a jaw-dropping amount of money and is well on its way to becoming the biggest movie of all time. The MCU will continue, but it will look very different. The movie also ends the story of Steve Rogers as Captain America, bringing his story to a poignant and moving conclusion. It’s hard to imagine an MCU without Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, but they will never be forgotten.

And no, I’m not forgetting about Natasha Romanoff, aka Black Widow, who sacrifices herself so her friends can obtain one of the crucial infinity stones and her friend Hawkeye can get his family back after his wife and three kids are taken from him in the movie’s wrenching opening scene. I was expecting Tony and Steve to reach the end of their journeys, but Natasha’s death came as a complete surprise. There’s still a Black Widow movie in the works so we will probably be seeing Natasha again at least once, but it will have to be in prequel form.

There are other unexpected character beats that are less sad. Hulk, for example, was an absolute joy. It seems that Bruce Banner was able to fuse himself with the Hulk, so he now has the Hulk’s body and Bruce Banner’s personality and intelligence. I thought of him as Professor Hulk, and he was wonderful. I really want a Professor Hulk movie now, which was something I didn’t realize I wanted until I saw Endgame.

Also a joy was Fat Thor. Chris Hemsworth is very underrated as a comedic actor, and he is hilarious, slyly stealing every scene he’s in. In the years since the Snap wiped out half of all life, Thor has let himself go a little bit. He’s fat, plays videogames in his house all day, and is quite possibly a full-blown alcoholic. It’s very funny, but it’s also shocking to see him this way, since it’s the polar opposite of how we’re used to seeing Thor, since let’s face it, Chris Hemsworth is pretty much the epitome of physical perfection.

I’ve read some stupid comments online about how the movie is fat-shaming Thor or making fun of people who play video games as being fat slobs, but like with most things on the internet, such talk is utterly ridiculous. The movie isn’t fat-shaming or making fun of anyone, it’s showing that Thor is a broken man. It’s funny to see him in a way we’ve never seen him before, but it’s also tragic when you think about it because it shows how depressed and broken he is.

Another aspect of the movie I liked was how it made Hawkeye, Nebula and Ant-Man three of the most important characters. Ant-Man and The Wasp was the first MCU movie post-Infinity War, and at the time of its release it was a bit difficult to see why Marvel chose it to be the first movie to come out in the wake of Infinity War’s devastating conclusion. But as it turns out, that movie introduced a key plot element that is very important in Endgame, and it ends up being Ant-Man’s idea that helps the Avengers bring back everyone they lost in Infinity War.

Yes, there is time travel in this movie, and it can get a bit messy. But I find it’s best not to get too bogged down with the logistics of time travel and just enjoy the ride. The time travel shenanigans lead to the Avengers revisiting the events of previous movies, and I thought it was awesome to see things from earlier movies that we didn’t see before, like the aftermath of the battle of New York from the first Avengers movie. I also liked how all of their intricate plans end up going awry in various ways, and there are scenarios like Tony Stark running into his dad or Steve Rogers having a fight with his past self.

Avengers: Endgame is a big, complex beast of a movie, and it can be a little overwhelming at times. There’s a lot to digest, and I’m sure that fans will be debating many aspects of its story for years to come. I can’t wait to see it again and pick up on things I missed the first time. It’s a hugely satisfying movie. It rewards the fans with an epic conclusion that is fun and exciting but also moving, and it doesn’t lose track of its characters amongst all the spectacle. A tip of the hat is due to writers Christopher Markus and Steven McFeely. Telling a coherent story with so many characters and such a complex plot, not to mention huge fan expectations, must have been an incredibly difficult balancing act, but they pulled it off with aplomb.

I will miss the characters we lost, but I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the MCU. The only MCU movie that currently has a release date is Spider-Man: Far From Home, which is due for release on July 2. Marvel hasn’t announced release dates for more movies past that, but I’m sure they will eventually. It’s been a heck of a ride, and Marvel has managed to fulfill the promise of its shared superhero universe with more success than anyone could have predicted.

Until next time, true believers!

Hellboy 2019 is a Bloody Mess

I need a shower after that. The new reboot of Hellboy is one of the goriest movies I’ve ever seen. It’s hard to even put into words just how gruesome this movie is. This ain’t your grandpa’s Hellboy, that’s for sure.

But let’s back up a bit. This new version of Hellboy is the latest incarnation of the comic book character created by Mike Mignola in 1993. You probably saw the commercials for the new movie and thought to yourself, wait, didn’t they already do that? The short answer is yes. Hellboy previously appeared in two films directed by monster aficionado Guillermo del Toro: Hellboy in 2004 and Hellboy II: The Golden Army, released in 2008. Del Toro’s films starred Ron Perlman as the title character and are movies that are fondly remembered today.

Del Toro and Perlman tried for years to get a third Hellboy made but for whatever reason it never got off the ground. You know what that means: reboot time. So here comes a new version directed by Neil Marshall and starring David Harbour in the title role, with no involvement from either del Toro or Perlman. And it’s…not great. It currently has an abysmal 15% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (as opposed to 81% and 86% for the del Toro movies) and made an equally-abysmal $12 million over its opening weekend. It seems poised to become one of the biggest bombs of 2019.

Images: Lionsgate

So…what happened?

There’s no easy answer, of course. But I had two takeaways from this movie: number one is that it’s really weird, and number two is that it’s really, really violent. Combine these two and you don’t exactly have a recipe for box-office gold.

So let’s talk about these two things, shall we?

This movie is weird as hell, no pun intended. Let’s chronicle some of that weirdness. The movie involves King Arthur, Merlin and Excalibur, and (spoiler) Hellboy himself turns out to be a descendant of King Arthur (!). There’s a group of upper-crust English gentlemen who dress up as knights and use electric-powered spears to hunt giants. There’s a Mexican luchador wrestler who turns into a winged vampire monster. Thomas Haden Church briefly appears as a guy named Lobster Johnson. One of the main characters turns into what must have been a were-leopard, or perhaps it was a were-jaguar. The main villain is named Nimue the Blood Queen and her main henchman is basically a sentient, bipedal warthog with a cockney accent. And have you ever heard of Baba Yaga? She’s in this movie too, complete with house that walks on chicken legs.

And covering all this weirdness are several squishy layers of blood, guts and gore. While del Toro’s Hellboy movies were rated PG-13, this reboot is a very hard R. Heads and limbs are severed, bodies melt, explode and dissolve, people are stomped, slashed, chopped, mutilated and maimed in every way imaginable, all of which is accompanied by soaring geysers of blood. During one particularly audacious sequence, an army of giant demons (demon giants?) are released from hell and unleash gruesome mayhem on the citizens of London, leading to people being skinned, impaled, incinerated and even ripped in half vertically like a wishbone.

The architect of all this grisly carnage is Neil Marshall. I last mentioned Marshall when I wrote about his 2002 werewolf movie Dog Soldiers, which was also extremely gory. But Hellboy had a much higher budget than Dog Soldiers, which allowed Marshall to indulge in his favorite pastime, which is of course painting the screen with blood and viscera. Seriously, this guy’s movies are GORY. Does Neil Marshall need a hug? I think he needs a hug.

But is there a story buried beneath all the blood and body parts? Yes, although it’s nothing particularly special. During the age of King Arthur, Nimue (pronounced Nim-way) the Blood Queen had some evil plan to unleash a plague or something, only to be defeated and dismembered by King Arthur and Merlin. Arthur sent her body parts to different corners of the kingdom so that no one could reassemble her. But in the modern day, there is that bipedal warthog creature who’s trying to reassemble Nimue so that she can turn him back into…a fairy, I think? The warthog-man also has a beef with Hellboy for reasons that didn’t really make any sense.

That was probably the most incomprehensible plot summary you’ve ever read, but trust me, watching the actual movie doesn’t make things any clearer. The movie’s plot is a complete mess, confusing at best and utterly baffling at worst. Guillermo del Toro is known for making movies that are full of bizarre creatures and monsters, and getting the viewer to sympathize with the creatures. With his Hellboy movies, he took a lot of care in establishing the world and the backstory of Hellboy and his supporting cast, and spent a lot of time developing their relationships so that you really cared about them.

Neil Marshall is a talented filmmaker, but with this movie it seems like he didn’t care about little things like plot or character and instead decided to throw everything at the wall to see what would stick. And the things he threw at the wall were severed heads and body parts. He tries to get the viewer to sympathize with Hellboy and attempts to add a bit of nuance to the thin plot by having Nimue try to recruit him to join her cause, since he’s a monster and everyone hates and fears him anyway, so why should he bother to help humanity? It’s a decent idea but it’s been done to death in the previous Hellboy movies, not to mention about a dozen X-Men movies.

Okay, but is there anything decent about this movie? I mean yeah, there is. It’s reasonably entertaining, and I was never bored. Baffled maybe, but not bored. David Harbour is good as Hellboy, although he probably won’t be making anyone forget Ron Perlman anytime soon. It’s got to be hard to act under all that makeup, and the guy gives it his best shot. Milla Jovovich is also good as the evil Nimue, and really sinks her teeth into the role of an ancient sorceress out for revenge.

The special effects and creature designs are also solid. It must be a lot of fun to work on a movie like this and let your imagination run wild, and there are all kinds of trolls, gremlins, zombies, and demons. The action sequences are also quite a bit of fun, if you can get past the copious bloodletting. Marshall is a talented director of action sequences and there is a reason he was hired to direct some of the biggest battle episodes of Game of Thrones. The action scenes are fun and exciting, even if the gore is excessive. I haven’t read any of the Hellboy comic books so I don’t know if they’re anywhere near as gory as this movie is, but if they are you’d probably need to wash your hands after reading one.

The new version of Hellboy isn’t very good. It has decent entertainment value, but it adds nothing to the world of Hellboy that hadn’t been done better in the earlier movies, and ends up feeling like a cynical cash-grab. There’s not just one but two post-credits scenes that tease sequels that will most likely never happen given the underwhelming box-office numbers. This movie will be a footnote in the history of superhero cinema.

GIRL POWER: Captain Marvel

Of all the characters that have appeared in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain Marvel is probably the one that I knew the least about beforehand. I’m a huge comics nerd and have read several thousand pages of Marvel comics, but I don’t think Captain Marvel appeared in any of the ones I’ve read.

The name “Captain Marvel” is also more than a little confusing. Marvel and DC both have characters named Captain Marvel. Marvel’s Captain Marvel is a woman and DC’s Captain Marvel is a man, who will be appearing in his own movie later this year. That movie is called Shazam and I wonder if they called it that to avoid confusion with Marvel’s Captain Marvel.

So yeah, it’s all pretty confusing. Fortunately, Marvel’s just-released Captain Marvel film is quite a bit of fun. It’s certainly not perfect and I wouldn’t consider it to be a top-tier Marvel movie, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.

Images: Marvel/Disney

Brie Larson plays the titular character, a fighter pilot whose real name is Carol Danvers. She becomes embroiled in an intergalactic war between two alien races: the Kree and the Skrulls. Carol doesn’t remember her past or even her name (her name isn’t revealed until later in the film) and struggles to control her photon-blasting abilities. She is a member of Starforce, which as far as I could tell was sort of like Kree Special Forces.

The Skrulls are a race of shape-shifting green aliens who resemble the sort of orcs or goblins that would appear in a Lord of the Rings movie. They have the ability to camouflage themselves to look exactly like anyone they see, and part of the fun of the movie is in guessing and discovering who is a Skrull in disguise. The movie doesn’t really get into the politics of the Kree/Skrull conflict, and it was never quite clear to me why they were fighting in the first place. Ultimately it doesn’t make too much of a difference because the movie’s plot is still easy to follow, but it could have benefited from adding a bit more depth to the underlying conflict between the two alien races.

There are several surprises in the plot that I didn’t see coming, but I thought they were well-executed and made sense, and weren’t there just to mess with the viewer. If that seems vague it’s because I don’t want to spoil anything, and so I’ll just leave it at that.

Brie Larson is a very appealing and likable lead, she’s tough and badass with a somewhat wry sense of humor that I found very appealing. This is the first Marvel Cinematic Universe film with a female lead, and Larson is a welcome addition to the MCU. This is also the first MCU movie to be directed (or in this case co-directed) by a woman. The film was directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, a filmmaking duo who made some very well-received indie movies that I haven’t seen but are well-regarded.

The movie is a lot of fun, and nicely balances action and spectacle with heart and a lot of very funny humor. Much of the humor comes courtesy of a cat named Goose (I suspect his name is a reference to Tom Cruise’s co-pilot in Top Gun), an adorable orange tabby who the end credits reveal was played by four feline thespians, who collectively should win an award for animal acting. And you should keep an eye on Goose, since he may or may not actually be a creature called a Flerken, which… well, I’ll let you find out for yourself. It’s amazing.

The movie is also a prequel, and takes place in the mid-90’s. As such, there are some very funny bits of 90’s nostalgia. Remember how slow computers used to be? This movie does. Some of the song choices are also quite funny, with one climactic fight scene being set to a song by No Doubt. The movie’s use of that song is very funny, but OH MY GOD I HATE THAT NO DOUBT SONG. Sorry, I just had to put that out there.

One area where the movie comes up a bit short in comparison to other MCU movies is the visuals. The special effects are fine but the movie doesn’t have the same creative visuals boasted by other MCU films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange or Thor Ragnarok. The movie doesn’t look bad, it just doesn’t look as good as its contemporaries. I found the interiors of the various spaceships in particular to be quite drab, and thought they lacked the lived-in feel of the spacecraft in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, for example.

But despite the occasional visual blandness, the movie still offers up the requisite amount of slam-bang superhero action, and Carol really gets a chance to show off how powerful she is during the film’s action-packed climax. Carol will be an important part of the next Avengers movie, and I can’t wait to see how she will fit in to the larger story.

One area in which the visuals absolutely excel are in the uncanny de-aging effects used on Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury and Clark Gregg as everyone’s favorite dearly-departed SHIELD field agent, Phil Coulson. Remember, this movie takes place in the 90’s so Fury and Coulson are quite a bit younger and Fury is not yet the director of SHIELD. I don’t know how they do it, but the de-aging effects on Jackson and Gregg are so good that you don’t notice them at all, which of course is exactly the point.

Marvel has succeeded yet again in taking characters with which I had little familiarity and making a fun and engaging movie with them. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, its plot isn’t terribly original and its visuals are occasionally bland, and it does feel at times like there’s some table-setting for subsequent movies. But its action sequences are fun, its performances are great (the chemistry between Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson is one of the film’s best aspects) and it brings a fun character into Marvel’s box-office-dominating film series that I am looking forward to seeing in future films. Can’t ask for much more than that.

The movie also opens with a lovely tribute to the late, great Stan Lee, with the opening Marvel Studios logo set to a montage of his various MCU cameo appearances, and the words “Thank You Stan” appearing on the screen. A touching tribute to a legendary creator. In the immortal words of Stan himself…

…’Nuff said.

2018: The Year in Villainy

It was a cinematic year that was primarily dominated by two Marvel villains, both of whom made big splashes. It’s hard to pick just one for the coveted title of Villain Of The Year, but ultimately there was one villain who just had to be given the title, and that villain is…

Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War

It had to be Thanos as Villain Of The Year. No other villain made as much of an impact on the lives of a movie’s characters. And not only did Thanos massively change (and, at least temporarily, end) the lives of dozens of superheroes, he also hugely impacted the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has become a box-office juggernaut ever since the release of Iron Man in 2008. With Thanos, Marvel showed that it is not afraid to shake up the status quo of its hugely profitable film franchise. And really, the fact that Thanos actually succeeded in wiping out half of all life in the universe makes him Villain Of The Year pretty much automatically.

Marvel/Disney

Also, remember when he THREW A PLANET AT IRON MAN??? Holy crap that was awesome.

Josh Brolin did fantastic work bringing Thanos to life, and the writers, directors, and special-effects people created a character who was surprisingly sympathetic, instead of the two-dimensional power-hungry jerk the character could have easily been if he had not been handled so well. Infinity War was the culmination of a decade’s worth of blockbuster movies, and thanks to Thanos the Marvel Cinematic Universe will never be the same. And for the record, I am still not over that Spider-Man scene. You know the one. Sniff.

Erik Killmonger in Black Panther

Marvel/Disney

In any other year, Killmonger would have been Villain Of The Year. But thanks to Thanos, he is a very strong runner-up. Michael B. Jordan was excellent and turned Killmonger, much like Thanos, into a deeply sympathetic and even tragic figure. The viewer could understand Killmonger’s point of view, even while disagreeing with his actions. He was charismatic, intelligent and badass. He was everything a great movie villain should be. I’ve got him as a very close runner-up for VOTY, but if he’s your number one I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong.

Captain Wafner in Overlord

Paramount Pictures

In stark contrast to sympathetic villains like Thanos and Killmonger, Captain Wafner was a villain with no redeeming qualities at all. He was a sadistic Nazi captain who was irredeemably evil even before he got half his face blown off and injected himself with an experimental serum that gave him ungodly strength and turned him into even more of a monster. Overlord was one of the year’s goriest thrill rides, and its villain was one of the year’s nastiest.

The Predators in The Predator

20th Century Fox

Speaking of gory thrill rides, it’s a toss-up between Overlord and Shane Black’s much-maligned Predator reboot for the title of goriest movie of the year. The Predator had its share of flaws, but I still found it to be an enjoyable, if bumpy, ride, and probably the best thing about it was seeing the different varieties of Predator that Black and his creative team conjured up. The design of the Predator in the original 1987 Predator movie was great to begin with, so Black didn’t change it too much. But he did add a few new wrinkles that were fun to see even if the Predator dog creatures were a little goofy, complete as they were with Predator dreadlocks.

The Meg in The Meg

Warner Bros.

The Meg is the film that finally answered the age-old question, “What would happen if Jason Statham were to fight an enormous shark?” The Meg is a deeply cheesy B-movie that was nonetheless quite enjoyable, and its massive shark was its crowning achievement. Or should I say sharks, because there are actually two of the giant beasts. The toothy monstrosities are enormous and, of course, hungry for nubile human flesh. The Meg is a thoroughly preposterous movie that is certainly no masterpiece, but it is quite a bit of fun and its gargantuan shark beasts should be more than enough to satisfy any fan of aquatic monster movies.

Solomon Lane and August Walker in Mission: Impossible – Fallout

Paramount Pictures

Tom Cruise’s latest Mission: Impossible flick was the thrill ride of the year, and it had two quality villains to give Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and the rest of his team a run for their money. Sean Harris reprises his role as the diabolical Solomon Lane from the previous M:I film, and Superman himself, Henry Cavill, played August Walker, who was more than a match for Ethan in a fight. Give Lane and Walker credit: they came this close to enacting their evil plan, only to be thwarted at literally the last possible second. Being a bad guy can be a thankless task when all your hard work comes to naught. Hopefully they’ll try again in a few years, because I want more Mission: Impossible movies. Or at least Lane can try again, Walker won’t be able to participate on account of being extremely dead.

Ghost in Ant-Man and The Wasp

Marvel/Disney

It was a year of sympathetic villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ghost was a young woman who was suffering from a unique condition that gave her the ability to phase through solid objects and teleport short distances, which made her hard to handle in a fight, though her powers are unstable. But she became more sympathetic once the viewer learned about her tragic backstory, how she lost her parents in the lab accident that gave her powers and how shady government types took advantage of her powers to turn her into a weapon. She was the main superpowered antagonist for most of Ant-Man and The Wasp, but the movie ends with her seemingly cured of her affliction so perhaps we’ll see her again down the road.

The Murdersaurus (technically the Indoraptor) Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Universal

You could argue that the main villains of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom were the morons who thought it would be a good idea to auction off a bunch of dinosaurs, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But those people were all idiots and dinosaurs are much cooler, so let’s talk about the Indoraptor instead. I dubbed it the Murdersaurus because it was a genetically-engineered death lizard designed specifically for hunting and killing. It gets to do a lot of hunting and killing in the second half of Fallen Kingdom, and I was kind of sad when it died because it was my favorite character in the movie.

Lizzy and Ralph in Rampage

Warner Bros.

Speaking of monster movies where all of the human characters were pretty dumb, Rampage was another deeply silly movie that I enjoyed quite a bit, it just might have been my guilty-pleasure movie of the year. The monsters were George the albino gorilla, Ralph the wolf, and Lizzy the (I think) alligator, all of whom were mutated to enormous size and exceptional ferocity. I didn’t include George as one of the villains because he ultimately becomes a good ape again, despite causing a lot of death and destruction. The monsters are fun to watch and the special effects are top-notch, and much like Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom the monsters are much more entertaining the bland human characters.

The Screenslaver in Incredibles 2

Disney/Pixar

For a kids movie, Incredibles 2 had a surprisingly sophisticated villain. Writer/director Brad Bird’s long-awaited follow-up to his 2008 original, Incredibles 2 is that rare movie that is fun for kids but also contains a lot for adults to enjoy. This is a movie that treats its viewers with respect, regardless of whether that viewer happens to be a kid or a grown-up. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Incredibles 2 makes it look easy. The Screenslaver is a villain who takes advantage of the world’s overreliance on technology, and manipulates the omnipresent screens that are all around us. That’s a scary idea. The Screenslaver is one of the most culturally-relevant cinematic villains of the year.

Dryden Vos in Solo: A Star Wars Story

Disney/Lucasfilm

Paul Bettany is one of my favorite actors. He’s the kind of actor who elevates any movie he’s in. Since he frequently plays good guys, it’s always fun to watch him cut loose as a bad guy and really chew some scenery. He chewed scenery with aplomb in the latest Star Wars spinoff as a ruthless crime lord named Dryden Vos, who was at least part alien. Dryden is the kind of villain who acts friendly one moment but can explode into murderous rage at the drop of a hat. I like villains like that because their unpredictability ensures that the viewer is always on edge whenever they are around. Bettany’s role in the film is not a huge one, which is not too surprising if you’re aware of the movie’s behind-the-scenes drama (Bettany’s role was initially played by a different actor), but he makes an impression with a limited amount of screen time, as all great actors do.

Cable in Deadpool 2

20th Century Fox

Okay, so this is another debatable one, since Cable and Deadpool end up as allies. But much like Ghost in Ant-Man and The Wasp, Cable serves as the superpowered antagonist for much of the film, so he counts. It was a big year for Josh Brolin playing Marvel comics characters, and he was perfectly cast as the gruff cyborg Cable. He looks pretty much identical to how Cable looks in the comics, and is placed front and center along with Deadpool in the movie’s biggest action scenes. Deadpool 2 was more cluttered than its predecessor, but it benefited from a more complex antagonist, even though I haven’t forgotten that Cable and Deadpool become pals by the end of the movie and have a long history of teaming up in the comics, so perhaps we’ll be seeing more of him in the future.

Mathias Vogel in Tomb Raider

Warner Bros.

Walton Goggins was another actor who had a busy year playing villains. In addition to playing the main villain in this year’s Tomb Raider reboot, he also played a secondary villain in Ant-Man and The Wasp. Goggins is an actor who frequently plays slimy bad guys, and he was well-suited to both of his villainous roles this year. In Tomb Raider he played Mathias Vogel, the leader of an expedition to find a hidden artifact with Great and Terrible Power. He was not a nice person, but he was at least somewhat sympathetic by virtue of the fact that he had been stuck on an island in the middle of nowhere for years and desperately wanted to return home. Still, he was a nasty fellow and his death was thematically appropriate and quite satisfying.

So there you have it, my favorite villains of 2018. Keep in mind that this was not a comprehensive list of every villain in every movie I saw this year, it was simply a list of my favorites. There were a surprising number of sympathetic villains this year, which makes me happy because if there is one thing I like it is a complex bad guy. 2019 is bringing us another full slate of bad guys, including the return of Thanos and the most dreaded evil clown of all, Pennywise. See you at the movies!

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!

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.