“DARK PHOENIX” (2019) Review

 

“DARK PHOENIX” (2019) Review

I feel sorry for the old X-MEN Movie Universe. Well . . . almost. For a franchise that began on a high note, it certainly ended with a whimper. At least from a financial point-of-view. And that whimper proved to be the 2019 movie, “DARK PHOENIX”.

Actually, “DARK PHOENIX” is not the final film of this franchise. The last film is scheduled to be released in the spring of 2020. As for “DARK PHOENIX”, it is the twelfth film associated with the franchise that was associated with the old 20th Century Fox Studios. It is also the second movie in the franchise, after 2005’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”, to adapt Marvel Comics’ 1976-1980 comic book series of the same title.

The movie begins in 1975 when nine year-old Jean Grey and her parents get involved in a car accident that leaves her as the sole survivor. Jean’s situation eventually attracts the attention of Professor Charles Xavier, who enrolls her as one of his students at the Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. The story jumps to 1992, nine years after the events of “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. Some of Xavier’s former students have become the next generation of the X-Men, with Mystique aka Raven as the team’s leader in the field and the Professor receiving their glory from the public and media. The U.S. President summons the team to assist NASA into rescuing the space shuttle Endeavour, which is critically damaged by a solar flare-like energy during its mission. While the X-Men save all of the astronauts, Jean is stranded and is struck by the energy, which she absorbs into her body to save the X-Men’s aircraft from destruction. Jean survives the event and her psychic powers are greatly amplified by the energy. Her powers become uncontrollable and she later accidentally unleashes her power on the mutants celebrating the success of their mission at Xavier’s school. Even worse, Jean’s enhanced powers attract the attention of a group of alien shape shifters called the D’Bari, whose home planet had been destroyed by the energy force. They want to use the energy (or Jean) to wipe out Earth’s inhabitants and re-shape the planet to resemble their own.

Eventually, Jean and the other X-Men learn that Xavier had placed mental walls in Jean’s mind as a little girl to protect her psychic mind from experiencing trauma from her childhood accident. Jean’s enhanced power destroys the mental walls and the trauma slowly returns, filling her with desire, rage, and pain. Jean then travels to her childhood hometown after finding out that her father is still alive and learned that he abandoned her. Jean recovers her complete memory of the car accident and remembers that her post-traumatic stress disorder had originated with the childhood car accident in which she had inadvertently caused by rendering her mother unconscious at the wheel with her telepathy. When the X-Men arrive to take Jean home but she injures Peter Maximoff aka Quicksilver and accidentally kills Raven aka Mystique before disappearing. And her actions led to the U.S. Army searching for her and willing to imprison other mutants at the government’s order.

Many X-Men fans and critics had really dumped on this movie when it first hit the theaters. I am not going to examine why this film was so unpopular. I can only discuss how I felt about it. One, it was not an original film. In many ways, “DARK PHOENIX” almost struck me as a remake of the 2006 movie, “THE X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. Or perhaps I should say . . . a remake of the Dark Phoenix story arc, but with slightly different details. I suspect that Kinsberg and the X-Men producers wanted to use the changed timeline from “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” as an excuse to re-write the Dark Phoenix story arc from 2006. Personally, I feel it would have been more original of them to completely leave that story arc alone and utilize another narrative for the film.

I also found the enhancement of Jean’s powers via some alien energy wave not only unoriginal, but unnecessary. Why did Simon Kinberg even thought it was necessary to enhance Jean’s powers? She had displayed an uber level of power when she killed En Sabah Nur aka Apocalypse in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. I can only assume the solar flare energy situation was created by Kinsberg to introduce the D’Bari.  Speaking of the latter, I noticed that their goal to destroy humanity and settle on Earth as its new home bore a strong resemblance to General Zod’s plan in 2013’s “MAN OF STEEL”. Look, I do not mind that Kinsberg had used aliens as the movie’s Big Bad for this film. But did he have to recycle a plot from a D.C. Comics movie? Or worse, create this energetic force to enhance Jean Grey’s powers, when they really did not require to be enhanced in the first place?

Despite the film’s lack of originality, I must admit that I actually managed to enjoy “DARK PHOENIX”. I noticed that Kinsberg’s screenplay featured a more in-depth exploration of how Jean’s enhanced powers had made an impact on her life and on those in her life. I also enjoyed how the actions of certain characters in regard to Jean had resulted in major consequences for many characters. I found it interesting how Jean found herself isolated by her fellow mutants and a lot of the blame could be tossed at Charles Xavier’s feet. He did not use his telepathy to contain her power – especially since he had encouraged her to use it to defeat En Sabah Nur in the 2016 film. Instead, he had used his telepathy to suppress her memories of her parents’ death and her emotional reaction to it . . . instead of simply helping her deal with a tragic loss. Xavier had used a short cut. And when the alien energy removed his mental blocks on Jean’s mind, tragic consequences followed. Xavier did not pay the consequences of his actions with death, but he did pay a heavy price.

Ironically, Erik Lensherr aka Magneto had no interest in exploiting Jean’s new powers, as he had done in the 2006 movie. He was more concerned in protecting Genosha, the refugee island for mutants he had founded and demanded that she leave after the U.S. Army appeared. Unfortunately, Magneto’s desire to protect those mutants under his leadership transformed into vengeance when he learned about Mystique’s death from a grieving Hank McCoy aka Beast. I found it interesting that Hank had never bothered to inform Erik that Mystique’s death had been an accident on Jean’s part. He was angry at Charles for the latter’s handling of Jean and decided to use the latter as a moral scapegoat. And unfortunately, the vengeful actions of both men ended up exacerbating an already dangerous situation. By the time the movie shifted to Manhattan, three forces (including the U.S. Army) were trying to contain, exploit or destroy Jean. Only a fourth group seemed concerned with Jean – namely the X-Men. And for once, Xavier WAS NOT the catalyst for the team’s attempt to rescue Jean. Her fellow team members – led by Scott Summers aka Cyclops and Ororo Munroe aka Storm – led this endeavor.

If I must be honest, most of the film’s visual effects did not blow my mind. At best, I found them serviceable. I could also say the same about Mauro Fiore’s cinematography. However, there was one particular scene in which the film’s visuals and Fiore’s photography really blew my mind. It involved the major clash that eventually evolved between the X-Men, the mutants under Erik Lensherr and Hank McCoy, the U.S. Army and the D’Bari. I have become increasingly weary of final action sequences shot at night over the past decade, thanks to the second “LORD OF THE RINGS” movie. I must say that I was more impressed by Fiore and the visual team’s work in this particular sequence, which began on the streets of Manhattan and ended on a train headed out of the city. And their work was more than ably supported by excellent editing from Lee Smith.

I certainly had no problems with the performances featured in “DARK PHOENIX”. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of Evan Peters, Kodi Smit Mc-Phee, Ato Essandoh and Brian D’Arcy James. Another solid performance came from Michael Fassbender, whose portrayal of Erik Lensherr struck me as skillful, but not particularly memorable. I do not think Kinsberg’s screenplay gave the actor something new or unusual to work with. At first, it seemed as if Alexandra Shipp was doomed to endure another movie in which her character, Ororo Munroe aka Storm, nearly became a background character. Thankfully, the movie’s second half gave Shipp an opportunity to convey Storm’s resilient nature with more dialogue and action scenes. I especially enjoyed that moment when Storm and Cyclops made it clear to Xavier their determination to help Jean.

Vuk proved to be the second time I have ever seen Jessica Chastain portray a villain. And I thought she gave an interesting and slightly . . . bizarre performance as the D’Bari’s manipulative leader, who seemed focused on seducing Jean for the latter’s powers. Nicholas Hoult surprised me by his skillful portrayal of the uglier side of Hank McCoy’s nature. This was especially apparent in scenes that reflected McCoy’s desire to avenge Mystique’s death. Speaking of the latter, Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance barely spanned half of the movie. I thought she gave a solid performance. But there was one scene in which she truly impressed me. It featured Mystique’s sardonic rant against Xavier for using the X-Men as his personal publicity campaign. I was more impressed by Tye Sheridan’s portrayal of Scott Summers aka Cyclops in this film than I was in the 2016 movie. Sheridan’s Cyclops became a more mature and determined personality. That maturity was expressed in Scott’s continuing love for Jean and his determination to help her as much as possible.

I think “DARK PHOENIX” marked the first time I can truly recall Charles Xavier being portrayed in a negative light . . . and I enjoyed it. This has nothing to do with any dislike of Xavier. But I cannot deny that I found James McAvoy’s portrayal of his character very interesting . . . and new. What I really found interesting is that Xavier’s uglier side was not briefly manifested in the revelation of the telepathic blocks he had placed in Jean’s head. That revelation only deepened Xavier’s arrogance and blindness. But audiences first saw signs of these traits, thanks to his argument with Mystique over his exploitation of the X-Men team for personal glory. Some of the franchise’s fans felt that Sophie Turner was not up to portraying the “Dark Phoenix” aspect of Jean Grey’s character. I suppose they were expecting a re-play of Famke Janssen’s portrayal. Even if they were not, I still managed to enjoy Turner’s performance. The main reason why I did was because Turner did not try to repeat the older actress’ performance. Thanks to Kinsberg’s script, Turner was able to put a different spin of Jean’s evolution into the Dark Phoenix . . . one that did not paint her as villainous. I also felt that Turner did an excellent job of conveying how Xavier’s mental blocks had led Jean to experience post traumatic stress (PST) and loss of control of her powers.

I cannot explain why “DARK PHOENIX” proved to be a box office failure. And if I must be honest, I am not interested in expressing my opinion on this topic. The movie was not perfect. And frankly, I wonder if it was a good idea to use the shifted timeline from “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST” as an excuse to create a new version of the Dark Phoenix story arc. But I cannot deny that I enjoyed the movie. I thought Kinsberg had created a solid piece of cinematic entertainment with a screenplay that did not become a convoluted mess and first-rate performances from a cast led by James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Sophie Turner.

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“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

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“AQUAMAN” (2018) Review

Following the failure of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” to storm the box office during the fall of 2017, Warner Brothers Pictures and the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) turned to the franchise’s sixth installment to carry it and the studio to both financial and especially critical glory. That movie proved to be 2018’s “AQUAMAN”

The character of the DC Comics superhero, Aquaman aka Arthur Curry has made extensive appearances in both television and movie animations. His biggest role proved to be one of the main characters of the 1973-1986 Saturday morning animated series, “SUPER FRIENDS”. The character also made occasional appearances in the live-action WB (later, the CW) series, “SMALLVILLE”. The WB had plans for a series about Aquaman, starring Justin Hartley (who later became known as Oliver Queen aka the Green Arrow on “SMALLVILLE”), but nothing came from it. In the end, it took Zack Snyder to bring Aquaman to the fore as a live-action figure, when he cast actor Jason Momoa in the role for the DCEU franchise. “AQUAMAN” would prove to be Momoa’s third appearance in the franchise, after a brief cameo in 2016’s “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” and a more prominent role in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”, the following year. However, “AQUAMAN” is the first film to feature Momoa as the lead in a DCEU film, but also the first movie that is actually about the “King of the Seven Seas”.

Directed by James Wan, “AQUAMAN” is a two-fold story that explores the drama behind Arthur Curry’s family conflicts. The movie also told how Arthur aka Aquaman went on a quest to prevent his half-brother King Orm Marius from uniting the seven undersea kingdoms in order to inflict war upon the surface world. The story begins in 1985, when a Maine lighthouse keeper named Tom Curry rescues a woman who has washed ashore during a storm. The mysterious woman turns out to be Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, who had left her ocean world to escape an arranged marriage to another member of Atlantean royalty, Orvax. Both Tom and Atlanna fall in love, marry and conceive a child, whom they name Arthur. Unfortunately, Atlantean soldiers manage to find Atlanna. She decides to leave Tom and Arthur behind and return to Atlantis in order to protect them from Orvax’s wrath.

Over thirty years later, Arthur has become known as the metahuman vigilante, Aquaman. Months after the Justice League’s defeat of Steppenwolf, Aquaman prevents a group of pirates led by the father-son team, Jesse and David Kane, from hijacking a Russian Naval Akula-class submarine. Jesse dies during the confrontation with Aquaman, while David, vows revenge against the hero. Meanwhile, Arthur’s half-brother, King Orm of Atlantis attempts to convince King Nereus of Xebel to help him unite Atlantis and the other ocean kingdoms for an attack against the surface world for for harming the Earth’s oceans. Orm also hopes to solidify his position as Atlantis’ king. Nereus’s daughter and Orm’s fiancee, Princess Mera, heads to the surface to recruit Arthur in stopping Orm’s plans against the surface world and to present himself as the true king of Atlantis.

Over a year had passed between the release of “JUSTICE LEAGUE” and “AQUAMAN”. I noticed that many film critics and moviegoers seemed willing to heap lavish praise on the 2018 film, following the other movie’s poor performance and lack of critical acclaim. I will be honest . . . I did not dislike “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. I had mixed feelings about it. I still do. But I must admit that “AQUAMAN” is a better film. To a certain extent. “AQUAMAN” is a curious mixture of a family drama, a political film, an Indiana Jones-style adventure and the usual “save-the-planet” scenario.

For me, the best aspect of “AQUAMAN” is the family drama that centered around Queen Atlanna. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall did an excellent job in conveying the consequences of Atlanna’s initial refusal to be dragged into an arranged marriage. Her actions resulted in eventual exile and possible death for her, two sons in conflict with each other, a political vacuum and one of her sons becoming a future costumed hero. The political vacuum left by Atlanna also led to an exciting and action-filled search for a missing magical artifact – the Trident of Atlan, which used to belong to Atlantis’ first ruler and had been missing his disappearance. This search would lead Arthur and Mera on a picturesque journey from the Mediterranean region to the depths of the ocean’s most elusive worlds, the Kingdom of the Trench.

I also liked the fact that Johnson-McGoldrick and Beall’s screenplay did not rush in conveying Orm’s story arc. They did not rush his efforts to solidify his position on the Atlantean throne or his efforts to convince or coerce the rulers of the other ocean kingdoms to acknowledge and join him in the attack against the surface. And what seemed to be the cherry on the top of this particular story arc is that the two screenwriters managed to utilize Aquaman’s other major nemesis – David Kane aka Black Mantis – into Orm’s story arc. In doing so, the two screenwriters and director James Wan managed to establish David Kane’s own origin story and major conflict against Aquaman for future movies. But what I really liked about “AQUAMAN” is that instead of the outsider or the interloper of a royal court being the main villain, he is the main protagonist. In other words, the main protagonist is the one who shakes up a society and not the villain. I found this refreshing after movies like “THOR” and “BLACK PANTHER”.

Another aspect of “AQUAMAN” that I enjoyed was the film’s visual styles. Bill Brzeski did an excellent job as the film’s production designer. I thought he did a competent job in not only re-creating Atlantis and other ocean worlds . . . to an extent. I also enjoyed his designs for those scenes that especially featured Arthur and Mera’s adventures in both the Sahara Desert and especially Sicily. Don Burgess’ cinematography did a great job in enhancing Brzeski’s work. This especially seemed to be the case for his photography of the shooting locations in Australia, Morocco and Italy. I am going to be frank. I am not a big fan of the traditional Aquaman suit . . . at least for Jason Momoa. From a visual perspective, I believe the suit he wore in “JUSTICE LEAGUE” worked better for him. But I must admit that I did enjoy Kym Barrett’s designs for the costume worn by Momoa in the Sicily sequence. And I especially enjoyed Ms. Barrett’s costumes for the other Atlantean and Xebel characters. Especially those costumes worn by Amber Heard. However, the one aspect of “AQUAMAN” that truly impressed me were the visual effects for the Atlantis scene created by the Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) team led by Jeff White. I mean . . . oh my God! Those visual effects truly blew me away with the sharp colors, beauty and originality, as seen in the images below:

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How on earth did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences fail to nominate White and the ILM team for their work in this film? It is simply criminal that the organization had failed to do this.

The performances featured in “AQUAMAN” struck me as either first-rate or solid. I would certainly describe Jason Momoa’s portrayal of Arthur Curry aka Aquaman as first-rate. One, the guy has charisma and presence oozing out of his pores. And two, Momoa did a great job in utilizing both his comedic and dramatic skills, when required by the screenplay. However, a part of me wishes there had been more of a balance between comedy and dramatic scenes for the actor. Another first-rate performance came from Amber Heard, who portrayed Princess Mera of Xebel. If I must be honest, I had been impressed by the way she had taken control of her performance in “JUSTICE LEAGUE”. Her portrayal of Mera as a strong-willed and commanding personality seemed even stronger in this film. “AQUAMAN” features the second time I have seen Patrick Wilson portray a villain. In this film, he gave a strong and intimidating portrayal of Aquaman’s half-brother, King Orm Marius aka Ocean Master. Wilson’s character was not as . . . amusing as his character in 2010’s “THE A-TEAM”, but I must admit that he did a great job in conveying Orm’s arrogance and bigotry. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II portrayed the film’s other villain, sea pirate-tech specialist David Kane, who will become one of Aquaman’s biggest nemesis, Black Mantis. Since he was not the main villain, his presence was not as extensive. But I cannot deny that Abdul-Mateen gave a very intense and memorable performance. I really look forward to seeing him in future DCEU films.

“AQUAMAN” also featured strong, yet solid performances from the supporting cast.  Those performances include Nicole Kidman, who portrayed Arthur’s mother Queen Atlanna; Temeura Morrison as Arthur’s father, Tom Curry; Willem Dafoe, who portrayed Arthur’s mentor Vulko; Dolph Lundgren as King Nereus of Xebel; Michael Beach as Jesse Kane, pirate leader and father of the future Black Mantis; and Graham MacTavish, who provided the voice for Atlan, the first king of Atlantis. I also wanted to point out Randall Park, who gave a rather funny and entertaining performance as Dr. Stephen Shin, a marine biologist obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis. I was surprised to discover that the movie also featured voice performances from the likes of Julie Andrews, Djimon Hounsou and John Rhys-Davies.

As much as I enjoyed “AQUAMAN”, I had some problems with the film. My biggest problem proved to be director James Wan. I realize that he has managed to establish a positive reputation from the horror flicks he had directed in the past. The problem is that there were times when I found his direction rather clunky. A good example would be the film’s opening scene that featured the introduction of Aquaman’s parents. It struck me as a bit rushed.

Utilizing slow motion scenes can annoy me in any movie. But what I found particularly annoying in “AQUAMAN” was that Wan did not use slow motion in action scenes. Instead, he used it for shots featuring Momoa in various poses . . . as if he was some kind of fashion magazine model. Also, it seemed as if Wan was incapable of going from action to drama to comedy in a seamless way. Perhaps he will be able to flow his scenes a little better as he become more experienced, but I did not sense such a skill in “AQUAMAN”.

Also, I am a little . . . confused about Queen Atlanna’s position in Atlantis society. Was she the ruling monarch when she first met Tom Curry? Was she ever the ruling monarch? Or did Atlantis society forbade women sovereigns and would only allow the royal spouses of a direct female heiress or sovereign to be considered for the throne? The movie never made it clear. According to the movie, one of Orm’s major reasons for planning an attack upon the surface world was humanity’s pollution of the ocean. Aside from one minor sequence featuring news reports of piles of garbage washing up on many beaches, I feel the movie did not explore the topic of pollution as much as it should have, considering IT WASone of Orm’s reasons to attack humanity.

I realize that “AQUAMAN” is at the moment, the DCEU franchise’s most successful film. It is the only one that has managed to earn over a billion dollars so far. But do I consider it the best in the franchise? Not really. Between James Wan’s uneven direction, some plot points regarding the Queen Atlanna character and the film’s use of the pollution topic; it did not quite impress me as I had hoped it would. On the other hand, I found some of Wan’s direction rather impressive, especially the action sequences. The visual effects struck me as stunning, the movie featured excellent performances from a cast led by Jason Momoa and I thought screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall wrote a first-rate adventure. I am more than satisfied.

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“CAPTAIN MARVEL” (2019) Review

“CAPTAIN MARVEL” (2019) Review

For several years, many movie fans, critics and feminists have criticized Disney Studios and Marvel Films for failing to green light a Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) film that starred a person of color or simply a woman. And for years, producer Kevin Feige have assured these critics that the studio was planning such a film for the franchise. Ironically, it took the plans of a comic book film from another studio for Feige to fulfill his promise.

Sometime in 2014 or 2015, Warner Brothers Studios announced it plans for a solo film featuring one of D.C. Comics’ more famous characters, Wonder Woman. The character had first appeared in the 2016 movie, “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” before moving on to a solo film. This decision by Warner Brothers and the success of the Wonder Woman film eventually led Feige to push forward his plans for a film about the Marvel Comics character, Black Panther aka King T’Challa of Wakanda. The character first appeared in the 2016 movie, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR”, followed by a solo movie released in early 2018. Following the success of “BLACK PANTHER”, Feige immediately set in motions for the MCU’s first film with a female lead – “CAPTAIN MARVEL”.

The comic book origin of Captain Marvel is decidedly complex and a bit controversial. The first Captain Marvel was a Kree military officer named Mar-Vell, who becomes an ally of Earth. The second Captain Marvel was Monica Rambeau, an African-American police officer from New Orleans. She eventually became another costume heroine named Spectrum. Four more characters served the role as Captain Marvel – all of them aliens – before an Air Force officer named Carol Danvers became the sixth and most recent character to fill the role. Feige and Disney Studios had selected Danvers to be the first cinematic Captain Marvel.

Directed and co-written by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, “CAPTAIN MARVEL” begins in the Kree Empire’s capital planet of Hala in 1995, where a member of the Empire’s Starforce, Vers, suffer from amnesia and recurring nightmares involving an older woman. Both her mentor and commander, Yon-Rogg; and the empire’s ruler, an artificial intelligence named Supreme Intelligence her mentor and commander, trains her to control her abilities while the Supreme Intelligence, the artificial intelligence that rules the Kree, urges her to keep her emotions in check. During a Starforce mission to rescue an undercover operative from the Skrulls, a shape-shifting race that are engaged in a war against the Kree, Vers is captured. The Skrulls’ commander, Talos, probes Vers’s memories and discover that the individual they are looking for might be on Earth. Vers escapes and crash-lands in Los Angeles, where she meets S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. Vers recovers a crystal containing her extracted memories, which leads her and Fury to an Air Force base. There, they learn that the mysterious woman that Vers had been dreaming of and for whom the Skrulls are searching is a Doctor Wendy Lawson, a woman who was working on a S.H.I.E.L.D. project known as Project Pegasus (one of the Infinity Stones – the Tesseract). They also discover that Vers is actually a Human Air Force officer named Carol Danvers, who was also working on Project Pegasus . . . and who was reported dead six years earlier in 1989. Vers (or Danvers) and Fury set out to keep the Space Stone out of the Skrulls’ hands and to learn more about her past and how she had ended up with the Kree.

Many critics and fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) were doubtful that “CAPTAIN MARVEL” would prove to be a hit. After all, the movie’s lead was a woman and the actress portraying her, Brie Larson, had a reputation for left-wing politics. Nevertheless, these doubting Thomases were proven wrong. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” went on to earn over one billion dollars at the box office. Did the movie deserve this kind of success? Hmmm . . . that is a good question.

“CAPTAIN MARVEL” did not strike me as one of the best MCU movies I have seen. I could say that it is your typical comic book hero origin story. Somewhat. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” had the unusual distinction of starting midway into Carol Danvers’ tale. In fact, screenwriters, which include directors Anna Fleck and Ryan Fleck; along with “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” co-writer Nicole Perlman; made the unusual choice of wrapping Carol’s past and the circumstances of her amnesia in a cloud of mystery. Movie audiences were first given the peep into Carol’s past during Talos’ probe of her memories. Between the Project Pegasus file and Carol’s reunion with her former best friend, former Air Force pilot Maria Rambeau, the mystery was finally cleared. A part of me admired the screenwriters’ attempt to utilize this different narrative device to convey Carol’s past. At least four other MCU films have utilized the flashback device (limited or otherwise) for their narratives. But “CAPTAIN MARVEL” is the only MCU movie in which the protagonist’s past is written as a mystery. Another twist that the screenwriters had revealed concerned the identities of the film’s antagonists – the Skrulls and their leader Talos. All I can say is that their goal turned out to be something of a surprise.

“CAPTAIN MARVEL” featured some well done action sequences. I thought Boden and Fleck provided solid direction for most of the film’s action scenes. I enjoyed such scenes like the Starforce’s rescue attempt of their spy from the Skrulls, Carol and Fury’s escape from the Air Force base and the Skrulls, and the film’s final action sequence involving Carol, Fury, Maria Rambeau, the Starforce team and the Skrulls. But if I had to choose my favorite action sequence, it would be the Los Angeles chase sequence in which Carol encounters Fury, Coulson and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, while chasing the Skrulls. My head tells me that I should be more impressed by the final action sequence. But I simply found myself more impressed by that chase sequence in the movie’s first half.

What can I say about the performances in the movie? They were pretty solid. I seem to use that word a lot in describing my feelings about “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. Well . . . I thought Brie Larson’s performance as Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel was more than solid. She seemed to take control of the character rather easily. And I thought she did a great job in combining certain aspects of Carol’s personality – her ruthlessness, dry humor and flashes of insecurity. Although he had a brief appearance in the 2018 movie, “THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR”, Samuel L. Jackson returned in full force as former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury for the first time in nearly four years. Only in this film, he is a mere agent. Jackson’s performance in this film proved to be a lot more humorous than in his previous MCU appearances. I also noticed that he and Larson, who had first appeared together in the 2017 movie, “KONG: SKULL ISLAND”, managed to create a very strong screen chemistry. Another memorable performance came from Ben Mendelsohn, who portrayed the Skulls’ leader, Talos. Thanks to Mendelsohn’s skillful performance, Talos proved to be one of the most subtle and manipulative antagonists in the MCU franchise.

Other performances that caught my eye came from Lashana Lynch, who portrayed Carol’s oldest friends and former Air Force pilot, Maria Rambeau. Does that name sound familiar? It should. In the movie, Maria is the mother of Monica Rambeau, the first woman Captain Marvel . . . at least in the comics. Lynch gave a subtle and skillful performance that portrayed Maria as a pragmatic and reserve woman with a dry sense of humor. Jude Law was convincingly intense as Carol’s Starforce commander and mentor, Yon-Rogg, who was unfailingly devoted to the Kree Empire and who also happened to be searching for the missing Carol. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” also featured competent performances from the likes of Clark Gregg as S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson, Gemma Chan as Starforce sniper Minn-Erva, Vik Sahay as Hero Torfan and Annette Bening, who portrayed Kree scientist Mar-Vell aka Dr. Wendy Lawson and provided the voice for the Kree Supreme Intelligence A.I. Akira and Azari Akbar portrayed the young and feisty Monica Rambeau at ages eleven and five respectively. Also, Djimon Hounsou and Lee Pace (both who had been in 2014’s “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”) reprised their roles as Korath the Pursuer and Ronan the Accuser. Only in this film, Korath was a member of Starforce and Ronan had yet to become a homicidal political extremist.

Do not get me wrong. I enjoyed “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. And I do plan to purchase a DVD copy as soon as possible. But . . . it is not perfect. And it is not one of my favorite MCU films. One, I wish this movie had not been set in the past. I do not think that Andy Nicholson’s production designs, along with Lauri Gaffin’s set decorations and the art direction team had convincingly recaptured the late 1980s and the mid 1990s. Honestly, I have seen other movies and television shows that did a better job. I understand that Carol Danvers was an Air Force officer before she became Vers and later Captain Marvel. But I found the movie’s pro-military atmosphere a bit jarring and uncomfortable. I do not understand why Disney Studios thought it was necessary to allow the U.S. Air Force to have so much influence on the film. I understand that the filmmakers had hired Kenneth Mitchell to portray Carol’s father, Joseph Danvers. Why did they even bother? Mitchell was wasted in this film. He was for at least a second or two in a montage featuring Carol’s memories. And he had one or two lines. What a waste of a good actor! And if I must be brutally honest, I found the movie’s pacing rather uneven . . . especially in the firs thirty minutes and in the last half hour. And as much as I enjoyed some of the action sequences, my enjoyment was limited by the film’s confusing editing, which has become typical of the MCU. Despite being a woman – and a progressive one at that – I found that entire moment with Captain Marvel kicking ass to the tune of Gwen Stefani’s 1995 song, “Just a Girl” rather cringe worthy. The MCU has proven lately that when it comes to promoting feminine empowerment, the franchise can be rather shallow and subtle as a sledge hammer.

My biggest problems with “CAPTAIN MARVEL” proved to be its inconsistent writing – a trait that has become a hallmark of the MCU in the past several years. On “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” Phil Coulson had informed his team that Nick Fury had recruited him into the agency, while he was in college. That should have occurred at least 10 years before this film’s setting. Yet, Clark Gregg had portrayed Coulson as if the latter was a newbie agent. And to be brutally honest, Gregg’s presence in the movie proved to be rather limited. Unfortunately. Speaking of S.H.I.E.L.D., why did Fury, Coulson and other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents appear at that Radio Shack store after a security guard had reported her presence? Why? Before Fury’s discovery of the Skrulls’ presence, S.H.I.E.L.D. was more focused on unusual scientific projects. There is also the matter of the Tesseract aka the Space Stone. Apparently, the Infinity stone, which was discovered and lost by HYDRA leader Johann Schmidt in 1942 and 1945 respectively, was discovered by S.S.R. scientist and future S.H.I.E.L.D. founder Howard Stark in 1945. S.H.I.E.L.D. kept that stone for over 40 years until it became part of a joint S.H.I.E.L.D./Air Force operation in the late 1980s called Project Pegasus. Seriously? Why would such a secretive agency like S.H.I.E.L.D. even share knowledge of the Tesseract with the U.S. Air Force, let alone allow a non-S.H.I.E.L.D. scientist (Dr. Lawson) and two junior test pilots (Carol and Maria) be the main participants in this project?

Movie audiences also discover how Nick Fury had lost his eye. I want to state how his eye was lost, but I am too disgusted to do so. Okay . . . Dr. Lawson aka Mar-Vell’s space cat (or whatever the hell it is) named Goose had scratched out his left eye. That is correct. Fury’s speech about trust issues in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” originated with a space cat that scratched out his eye, because he got too friendly with it. Jesus Christ! Talk about taking an important character moment for Fury in one film and transforming it into a joke in another, five years later. In doing so, both Boden and Fleck came dangerously close to neutering his character. They, along with Kevin Feige, actually managed to accomplish this with the Monica Rambeau character. They took Marvel Comics’ first female Captain Marvel and transformed her into a child, who happened to be the daughter of Carol Danvers’ best friend. I found this both frustrating and disturbing.

Earlier, I had complained about the movie’s 1989-1995 setting. I have a few questions in regard to portraying Captain Marvel’s origin during this setting. If Captain Marvel had been around since 1995, why did Nick Fury wait so long to summon her? He did not summon her until the chaos surrounding Thanos’ Snap in “THE AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR” began to manifest . . . twenty-three years later, as shown in one of the film’s post-credit scenes. If Captain Marvel had been saving the universe during those past twenty-three years, where was she when Ronan the Accuser had threatened to destroy Xandar in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”? Where was she when Ego had threatened the universe in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, VOL. 2”? Where was she when the Dark Elves had attacked both Asgard and Earth in order to get their hands on the Aether (or Reality Stone) in “THOR: THE DARK WORLD”? Where was she when Loki and the Chitauri attempted to invade Earth in “THE AVENGERS”? Where was she when Ultron threatened the Earth in “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”? Where was she during all of these major galactic crisis? The more I think about this, the more I realize that Carol’s origin story should have been set after the recent MCU film, “THE AVENGERS: ENDGAME”.

Despite my complaints about “CAPTAIN MARVEL”, I did enjoy it. The movie had enough virtues for me to do so, especially an entertaining adventure set in both outer space and on Earth. I also thought the screenwriters, which included directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck had created an engaging and interesting mystery that surrounded the protagonist’s past and origin of her abilities. “CAPTAIN MARVEL” also featured some impressive action sequences and first-rate performances from a cast led by Brie Larson. I do look forward to seeing this movie again.

 

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Top Five Favorite Episodes of “AGENT CARTER” (2015-2016)

Below is a list of my five favorite episodes from ABC’s “AGENT CARTER”. Created by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the series stars Hayley Atwell as Agent Margaret “Peggy” Carter: 

TOP FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “AGENT CARTER” (2015-2016)

1 - 2.02 A View in the Dark

1. (2.02) “A View in the Dark” – SSR Agent Peggy Carter’s investigation into the death of an Isodyne Energy employee in Los Angeles ends up with huge ramifications; when the wife of Isodyne’s owner, Hollywood actress Whitney Frost and another employee from the company, Dr. Jason Wilkes (who has volunteered to help Peggy), are exposed to the Zero Matter from the company’s particle accelerator.

1 - 1.06 A Sin to Err

2. (1.06) “A Sin to Err” – While Peggy and Howard Stark’s valet, Edwin Jarvis, investigate a mysterious woman whom Stark may have dated, Chief Roger Dooley and the rest of the Strategic Scientific Reserve (S.S.R.) staff begin to suspect that Peggy might be a traitor in their midst.

2 - 1.05 The Iron Ceiling

3. (1.05) “The Iron Ceiling” – After a message from the Leviathan intelligence agency is decoded; Peggy, Agent Jack Thompson and the Howling Commandos investigate a Soviet military complex to stop a possible sale of Stark’s missing weapons.

2 - 2.07 Monsters

4. (2.07) “Monsters” – While Peggy plans a rescue mission for former Leviathan agent Dottie Underwood, who had been captured in the previous episode, Whitney Frost covers up her murder of husband Calvin Chadwick and some members of the Council of Nine, a secret organization of U.S. industrialists. Whitney tortures Dottie into revealing why Peggy is interested in the Zero Matter and sets a trap that involves Jason Wilkes, along with Edwin and Anna Jarvis.

3 - 1.08 Valediction

5. (1.08) “Valediction” – In this season finale, Peggy and her fellow S.S.R. agents race to stop a pair of Leviathan agents from kidnapping Stark and dumping lethal gas on the population of New York City.

“Unnecessary Time Periods”

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“UNNECESSARY TIME PERIODS”

I am a big fan of the DCEU or at least the franchise’s first phase. I am also a fan of the 2017 hit film, “WONDER WOMAN”. I was also pleased to discover that the film has managed to convince Hollywood studios – especially Warner Brothers and Disney – to create more comic book movies with a female protagonist. 

But my pleasure in both has somewhat been muted by what seemed to be a growing trend in Hollywood – to have these upcoming movies set in the past. Why? Because the successful “WONDER WOMAN” film was set in the past – during the last week or two of World War I? I had no problems with this, considering that “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE” had established Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman’s presence during that conflict with a single photograph. Hell, the television series from the 1970s had established Wonder Woman’s origin story during World War II during its Season One and brought her character into the present (late 1970s to early 1980s) in the seasons that followed.

However, I learned that the second Wonder Woman movie starring Gal Gadot will be set in 1984. To drive home that point, it is called “WONDER WOMAN 1984”. Personally, I do not understand this decision. Was this Warner Brothers and Patty Jenkins’ attempt to cash in on the first movie’s success? Was it to undermine the back story for Wonder Woman that was established by Zack Snyder in both “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN” and “JUSTICE LEAGUE” in order to make her seem like a more ideal character? Who knows. But this movie will definitely establish a plot hole in the franchise’s overall narrative.

Warner Brothers also plans to create and release “SUPERGIRL”, who happened to be Kara Zor-El, the first cousin of Clark Kent aka Superman. And they plan to set this movie in the 1970s. Why? Apparently, Supergirl is the older cousin and to the movie’s screenwriters, it made sense that she would reach Earth before him. But . . . “MAN OF STEEL” and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”had already established that Superman was the first powerful alien to become known to Humans. In fact, there have been others before the arrival of General Zod and his followers who were aware of Clark’s powers. You know . . . like Jonathan and Martha Kent, some of Smallville’s citizens and Lois Lane. By setting “SUPERGIRL” in the 1970s, Warner Brothers would again . . . undermining a narrative point established in previous films. Why not follow the example of the television shows like “SUPERGIRL” and “SMALLVILLE” on the CW by having Kara aka Supergirl’s spacecraft knocked off course and forced into the Phantom Zone for a decade or two? So, by the time Kara finally reached Earth, her cousin Kal-El would have grown up and become Superman. Why not use this scenario?

“WONDER WOMAN”, Marvel’s Kevin Feige had finally decided that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) will feature a comic book movie with a woman in the starring role . . . namely “CAPTAIN MARVEL”. Mind you, I still find it cowardly that Feige had decided to wait until the success of another studio to produce a movie featuring a comic book heroine in the lead. Especially since the character Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow has been part of the franchise since the 2010 movie, “IRON MAN 2”. However . . . I discovered that “CAPTAIN MARVEL” will be set in the 1990s. And I ask myself . . . why?

The official word is that the movie’s time period is being used to set up Nick Fury’s trajectory toward forming The Avengers years later. After all, both Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg as future S.H.I.E.L.D. Directors Nick Fury and Phil Coulson will be in the film. But this is so unnecessary. I realize that Tony Stark aka Iron Man was not the first enhanced being or metahuman (so to speak) to attract the attention of S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury must have known about Steve Rogers aka Captain America’s war service in “CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER”. He must have known about Hank Pym and Janet Van Dyne’s S.H.I.E.L.D. activities in the 1980s as Ant-Man and the Wasp. And her certainly knew about Dr. Bruce Banner’s experiments in gamma radiation and eventual transformation into the Hulk before the events of “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”. After all, 2008’s “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”was not an actual origin movie. So, I find myself wondering why Feige found it necessary to set up Fury’s trajectory with enhanced beings with Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel . . . in the 1990s. Unless “CAPTAIN MARVEL” is simply another attempt by a studio or producer – in this case, Kevin Feige and the MCU – to cash in on the success of “WONDER WOMAN”. Why not just admit it? Especially since it seems so obvious.

And by the way, why are all of these films led by a comic book heroine? Just because “WONDER WOMAN” was set in the past, there is no reason why every single comic book movie with a woman in the lead have to be set in the past? What is the point in all of this? Yes, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” was set in the past. However, the following two movies featuring Captain America were set in the present. So, why did Marvel feel it was necessary to set “CAPTAIN MARVEL” in the past? Why is it that none of the other MCU movies led by men set in the past? Why did Warner Brothers believe it was necessary to set its second Wonder Woman and Supergirl films in the past? Has this been the case for any of their movies with a male lead or ensemble-oriented movies like “SUICIDE SQUAD”?

I found myself wondering if there is another reason why these three upcoming comic book heroine movies are being set in the past. But I could not find any. The time periods for these films are so unnecessary and an obvious attempts to copy the success of “WONDER WOMAN”. The thing is . . . Wonder Woman’s past during World War I and the photograph discovered by both Bruce Wayne aka Batman and Lex Luthor allowed them to recognize her as a possible metahuman or enhanced being. For me, there is no good reason for “WONDER WOMAN 1984”“SUPERGIRL” or “CAPTAIN MARVEL” to be set in the past.

Peggy Carter’s Post-World War II Career

PEGGY CARTER’S POST-WORLD WAR II CAREER

Recently, I did a re-watch of Season One of “AGENT CARTER”. While watching Scientific Strategic Reserve (SSR) Agent Peggy Carter endure the patronizing slights from her boss and fellow agents, I found myself wondering how she ended up as a mere agent, reduced to acting as the office’s secretary/coffee girl after two years as a code breaker at Bletchley Park and four years in the SSR during World War II. 

I am certain that many of you would answer . . . duh, sexism! Like many women after World War II, Peggy had found her wartime activities dismissed by men, who were more concerned with regulating her and other women to traditional roles. This became doubly so for the likes of her post-war supervisors – Captain John Flynn and Chief Roger Dooley; and the latter’s Lead Investigator/Agent, Jack Thompson. It was easier for them to treat Peggy as someone who should have held a secretarial or clerical position at the SSR, instead of an agent.

This was the conclusion I had come to after viewing both the 2013 short film, “MARVEL ONE-SHOT: AGENT CARTER” and Season One of the 2015-2016 series for the first time. It took a recent viewing of Season One for me to harbor some doubts about this story arc for Peggy. Between the creation of the SSR in 1940 and its absorption into the Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division (S.H.I.E.L.D.) as one of the latter’s subdivision near the end of the 1940s; Colonel Chester Phillips served as Director. If Colonel Phillips had served as Director of the SSR during the 2013 short film, along with Seasons One and Two of “AGENT CARTER”, how did Peggy end up being reduced as some lowly field agent whom most of her colleagues dismissed, due to her gender? How did she get into this situation?

While working as a MI-5 agent in 1940, Peggy was loaned out to the SSR. Later that year, she managed to infiltrate HYDRA’s German headquarters at Castle Kaufmann and rescue Dr. Abraham Erskine, creator of the Super Soldier Serum. She also engaged in missions in Brooklyn, New York and the Soviet Union. In June 1943, she was assigned by Phillips to train the potential candidates – one of them, a physically undeveloped Steve Rogers – for Erskine’s serum. By the end of the war, she had more or less become Phillips’ top aide. And following the death (or disappearance) of Steve Rogers, who had been transformed into Captain America by Erskine’s serum, she took command of the Howling Commandos and led the operation to mop up the last remnants of HYDRA in Europe. They managed to capture one of the last HYDRA commanders, General Werner Reinhardt, and an artifact in his possession called the obelisk. Within a year of this operation, Peggy found herself first assigned to the SSR’s Brooklyn, New York office under Captain John Flynn; and later assigned to the SSR’s Manhattan office, which was supervised by Roger Dooley.

So, how did Peggy get into this situation? How did she become the butt of contempt, bigotry and many jokes by her fellow agents? Dismissed as a woman who had no business in what they regarded as a “man’s world”? Both Flynn and Dooley must have seen her personnel file and learned about her exemplary wartime activities. Yet, both continued to dismiss her . . . until she managed to discover a deadly liquid called “the Zodiac”, while working at the SSR’s Brooklyn office. Later, she managed to decrypt an encoded message for the Manhattan office, which was received from a Soviet intelligence group called the Leviathan through its agent, Sascha Demidov’s typewriter. Roger Dooley’s regard for Peggy increased following Thompson’s glowing report of her actions during a mission in the Soviet Union. By the end of Season One’s penultimate episode, Dooley, Thompson and the rest of the agents had learned to accept Peggy for the competent intelligence agent that she was.

After a good deal of thinking, it finally occurred to me what problems I had with this scenario regarding Season One of “AGENT CARTER”. One of them happened to be Colonel Chester Phillips, Director of the SSR. The other problems proved to be the series’ creators, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; and Eric Pearson, who wrote the 2013 one-shot film. According to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Wiki website, Colonel Phillips was the sole director of the SSR throughout the 1940s. If so, why did he assign Peggy to serve under a pair of sexists like John Flynn and Roger Dooley? Peggy was one of Phillips’ best operatives during the war and his top aide. Hell, she was by his side when he and Steve Rogers led the assault on the last base of operations commanded by HYDRA leader Johann Schmidt during the last year of World War II. It made no sense to me that Phillips would assign Peggy to serve under men who obviously had no true professional regard for her. I found this especially hard to believe, considering that by the end of the decade, Phillips had no problems regarding Peggy as a co-founder of S.H.I.E.L.D. And her service under Flynn and Dooley seemed like a step down from her activities during the war.

When Eric Pearson wrote the one-shot film, did he not consider that Chester Phillips had continued to serve as the SSR’s director after the war? Did Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, when they created “AGENT CARTER”? Could any of them consider a different scenario that did not call for Peggy serve the SSR in such a lowly fashion following the war? Peggy could have ended up leading her own field unit . . . and still face the sexism of her colleagues.

But this never happened. And knowing that Chester Phillips continued to serve as Director of the SSR throughout the 1940s, I found the troubles – especially the kind of sexism that Peggy Carter had faced as an agent working in New York City during the immediate post-war years somewhat difficult to swallow. I would have found Peggy facing sexism, while serving in a slightly higher position within the SSR’s hierarchy easier to believe. Or . . . I would have found Peggy’s experiences in New York City easier to swallow if Chester Phillips had been replaced as the SSR’s Director following the end of World War II.

Five Favorite Episodes of “LEGENDS OF TOMORROW” Season One (2016)

Below is a list of my favorite episodes from Season One of the CW series, “LEGENDS OF TOMORROW”. Based upon several D.C. Comics titles, the series was created by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, Andrew Kreisberg, and Phil Klemmer.

 

 

FIVE FAVORITE EPISODES OF “LEGENDS OF TOMORROW” SEASON ONE (2016)

1. (1.13) “Leviathan” – Rogue time traveling cop Rip Hunter takes his team of vigilante heroes to 2166 London in an effort to defeat the immortal warrior Vandal Savage once and for all and prevent him from becoming the tyrannical world leader of the 22nd century. However . . . complications arise in the form of Savage’s daughter and a giant android.

 

2. (1.05) “Fail-Safe” – This second half of a two-part story in 1986 Soviet Union finds Rip and his team attempt the prison break of team members Ray Palmer aka “The Atom” and Mick Rory aka “Heatwave” from a Soviet gulag. Meanwhile, they also have to prevent Soviet scientist Valentina Vostok from using the stolen “Firestorm” formula given to her by Savage.

 

3. (1.15) “Destiny” – Following the capture of Rip and some of the Legends by his former employers, the Time Bureau, the remaining Legends under Sara Lance aka White Canary plot to rescue their fellow team members and destroy the Time Bureau’s Occulus device, which the latter used to help Savage in order to maintain the timeline. Martin Donovan guest-starred.

 

4. (1.02) “Pilot, Part 2” – Rip and his team infiltrate a weapons auction for terrorists in 1975 in order to prevent Savage from selling a nuclear weapon. Unfortunately, a fight ensues in which Ray loses a part of his Atom suit. Savage’s discovery of it leads to a potential destruction of Star City (the Green Arrow’s hometown) in the future. Neal McDonough guest-starred.

 

5. (1.08) “Night of the Hawk” – Rip and his team track Savage to a small town in Oregon in 1958, where they suspect he is involved in a recent string of murders.

“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review

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“THOR: RAGNAROK” (2017) Review

Until last fall, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has released three films each for only two of the franchise’s characters – Iron Man and (allegedly) Captain America. With the release of “THOR: RAGNAROK”, the God of Thunder became the third character to end up with three solo films. 

Directed by Taika Waititi, “THOR: RAGNAROK” told the story of Asgardian prince Thor’s efforts to prevent the destruction of his world, Asgard, from his aggressive and more powerful sister, Hela. The movie is the franchise’s version of a similar story featured in one of the Marvel Comics titles for the Thor character. Screenwriters Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost also used elements from the 2006 Marvel story, “Planet Hulk” to include the Dr. Bruce Banner aka the Hulk into the movie’s plot.

Set four years after the events of “THOR: THE DARK WORLD” and two-and-half years after the events of “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”, this film begins with Thor as a prisoner of the fire demon Surtur in Muspelheim. Thor had went there to search for the remaining Infinity Stones. Surtur reveals that Thor’s father Odin is no longer on Asgard, and that the Asgardian realm will soon be destroyed in the prophesied Ragnarök, once Surtur unites his crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in Odin’s vault. However, Thor frees himsel, defeats Surtur and claims the latter’s crown, believing he has prevented Ragnarök aka the Asgardian version of the Apocalypse. Upon his return to Asgard, Thor discovers that his adoptive brother Loki has been posing as Odin. He also finds that a warrior named Skurge has replaced the all-seeing Heimdall as the Bifröst Bridge’s sentry. Thor forces Loki to help him find Odin on Earth.

With assistance from the sorcerer Dr. Stephen Strange, the pair finds Odin Norway. The latter explains that he is dying and that his passing will free his ambitious firstborn child, Hela the Goddess of Death, out of a prison in which she had been sealed. When he finally dies, Hela appears on Earth, destroys Thor’s hammer Mjolnir and demands loyalty from him and Loki. Instead, the two brothers attempt to flee via the Bifröst Bridge. Unfortunately, Hela pursues them and forces them out into space to die. Hela ends up in Asgard and violently assume control of the throne. Thor crash lands on a garbage planet called Sakaar. There, he is captured by a bounty hunter, whom recognizes as a Valkryrie named Brünnhilde, and forced to participate as a gladiator for the planet’s “Contest of Champions”. He also discovers that Loki has become a companion of Sakaar’s leader, the Grandmaster. And that Bruce Banner aka the Hulk has been a champion gladiator on Sakaar ever since his disappearance, following the Sokovia battle over two years ago. Thor not only needs to survive a match against the Hulk, but also escape from Sakaar and prevent his sister’s complete control over Asgard and her plans for expanding the realm’s empire.

“THOR: RAGNAROK” had received a great deal of praise from film critics upon its release. In fact, the movie went on to become a box office hit. In a way, I could see why. The basic narrative for “THOR: RAGNAROK” struck me as a rare thing for a MCU solo film – an epic in the making. Thor facing a possible apocalypse for Asgard, a gladiator match against a fellow ex-Avenger, and more family drama from the Asgard Royal Family. “THOR: RAGNAROK” had the potential to be another “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER”.

There was a good number of things I really enjoyed about “THOR: RAGNAROK”. One, I enjoyed director Taika Waititi’s use of the Led Zeppelin tune, “Immigrant Song” around the film’s beginning and near the end rather effective. I was also impressed by Joel Negron and Zene Baker’s editing for the film. Their work seemed especially impressive in the scenes that featured Thor’s chaotic arrival on Sakaar and his gladiator match with the Hulk. I also found Javier Aguirresarobe’s cinematography very colorful . . . almost outstanding. Hell, there was one scene featuring Hela’s past conflict with the Valkyries that reminded me of Larry Fong’s work with director Zack Snyder:

Much has been said about the humor that permeated “THOR: RAGNAROK”, thanks to the screenwriters and especially Taika Waititi’s direction. I cannot say that I had enjoyed all the humor featured in the film. But there were a few scenes that I found particularly funny. One included Loki’s play about Odin’s grief over his fake death. This scene featured Matt Damon, Luke Hemsworth and Sam Neill portraying Loki, Thor and Odin respectively. Brünnhilde’s first appearance in the movie, in which she is drunk as a skunk, struck me as rather funny, thanks to Tessa Thompson’s performance. Another scene I found hilarious was Thor and the Hulk’s first meeting inside the Sakaar arena, along with Loki’s fearful reaction to seeing the latter again. But the funniest scene – at least for me – featured Thor forcing a reluctant Loki to play a “Get Help!” trick (something from their childhood) on one of the Grandmaster’s minions.

The movie featured some first-rate performances. Chris Hemsworth gave his usual first-rate performance as Asgard’s crown prince, Thor. Tom Hiddleston was equally impressive as the mischievous and self-absorbed Loki. Cate Blanchett chewed the scenery in grand style as Thor and Loki’s power hungry sister, Hela. Tessa Thompson gave a skillful performance as the ambiguous former Valkyrie, Brünnhilde, who used alcohol to runaway from painful memories. Mark Ruffalo was excellent as both the mild-mannered Dr. Bruce Banner and his alter ego, the Hulk; who seemed more happy as a worshiped gladiator on Sakaar than as a wanted fugitive/Avenger on Earth. Jeff Goldblum was his colorful self as the Grandmaster; the gregarious, yet tyrannical and self-absorbed leader of Sakaar. Idris Elba provided much needed gravitas as Asgard’s former gatekeeper, Heimdall, who found himself the leader of the realm’s refugees from Hela’s reign. Karl Urban was surprisingly entertaining as the boastful warrior Skurge, who would do anything to survive Hela’s reign. The movie featured two cameos. Benedict Cumberbatch made a solid cameo appearance as the arrogant sorcerer, Dr. Stephen Strange. However, Anthony Hopkins’ cameo as the dying Odin struck me as poignant and a lot more effective.

Despite all of the above, despite the critical acclaim, “THOR: RAGNAROK” proved to be rather disappointing for me in the end. What went wrong?

One problem I had with this film was its treatment of certain characters. Remember Lady Sif and the Warriors Three? Thor’s closest friends who had traveled all the way to Earth to find him in “THOR”? And who helped him defy Odin and leave Asgard with Loki and Dr. Jane Foster in order to remove one of the Infinity Stones – the Aether – from the realm and the Dark Elves? Well . . . Lady Sif never made an appearance in this film. One would assume that actress Jamie Alexander had scheduling conflicts with her TV series, “BLINDSPOT”. Then why not hire another actress to portray Lady Sif . . . as they had did with Fandral? But not only was Lady Sif missing, she was not even mentioned in this film. That was quite a head shaker for me. Another head shaker were the fates of the Warrior Three – Fandral, Volstagg and Hogun. Both Fandral and Volstagg were immediately killed by Hela upon her arrival on Asgard. I found that so disappointing and a waste of both Zachary Levi and Ray Stevenson’s time. At least Tadanobu Asano’s Hogun was able to speak more than one line and engage in a brief fight with Hela before she eventually dispatched him. But what made this so damn annoying was that Thor was never told about his friends’ deaths on screen. Audiences never got a chance to see him react to their deaths.

Believe it or not, I also had a problem with the Hulk. Well . . . I had a problem with his ability to form near complete sentences. How did that happened? Aside from uttering the phrase “Hulk smash!” in the 2008 movie, “THE INCREDIBLE HULK”, I do not recall him ever speaking any sentences – complete or not. Not when he was portrayed by Eric Bana, Edward Norton or Mark Ruffalo. What I found even more puzzling was Thor’s lack of surprise over the Hulk’s conversational skills. Odin’s death was handled in an equally questionable manner. First of all, from what did he died? What caused Odin’s death? Being away from Asgard for so long? If so, the movie’s screenplay was very vague in conveying this. And why did Odin’s death lead to Hela’s appearance on Earth? If she was in a prison, why did she not appear in Asgard upon her father’s death? That made no sense to me. Movie audiences learned that Thor and Dr. Jane Foster finally had their breakup, following his departure from Earth two years earlier. I am already annoyed at Kevin Feige for hinting that Jane was not worthy of being Thor’s love interest. Not worthy? Why? Because she was not a skilled fighter with or without super strength who wielded a sword or gun? Fuck Kevin Feige and his sexist bullshit. What made the news of the breakup even worse is that the news of Thor and Jane’s breakup was treated as comic relief. Thor’s breakup with a woman with whom he was in love for four years . . . was treated as a joke? Natalie Portman was right to dump this franchise.

If “THOR: RAGNAROK” was about the God of Thunder’s attempt to prevent Asgard from experiencing Ragnarok (or an apocalypse), why in the hell did it focus on Thor’s activities in Sakaar for so damn long? Why did the movie stay on that damn planet for so long? Once Thor and the Hulk’s gladiator’s match had ended, I figured it would not be long before Thor would have left Sakaar with the Hulk, Loki and Brünnhilde. Instead, it nearly took them FOREVER to get off that planet. It was sheer torture watching Thor trying to convince the Hulk and Brünnhilde to help him get off the planet. And I found Loki’s backstabbing shenanigans not only unoriginal, but lame. Come to think of it, I found Loki’s presence in this film rather lame . . . except in the movie’s last twenty minutes or so. He more or less became a punching bag for Thor and everyone else, than the dangerous and tricky villain he used to be. Once “the Revengers”, as Thor called himself and the others, arrived on Asgard, it was . . . eh. I just did not care at that point. Their final conflict with Hela and Thor’s decision to kick star Ragnarok (using Surtur’s crown and the Eternal Flame) just could not lift me from my apathy toward this film.

But what really sank “THOR: RAGNAROK” for me was the humor. I do not mind the occasional use of humor in an action film like this. I do not even mind when there is more humor than usual – especially in films like “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” and “ANT-MAN”. But what I could not deal with was a barrage of humor in a narrative that featured the possible apocalypse of Asgard, the deaths of familiar characters and the further drama of the Asgardian Royal Family. Nearly everything was transformed into a joke – from Thor’s discovery of Loki’s impersonation of Odin, Brünnhilde’s post-traumatic stress disorder (PTS) over the deaths of her fellow Valkyries, the reason behind the Hulk’s longing to remain on Sakaar, the revelation over Thor and Jane’s breakup, the Sakaarians’ decision to rebel against the Grandmaster, and Hela’s revelations to Skurge about hers and Odin’s murderous creation of the Asgardian Empire. These were all plot points that should have been treated with a good deal more gravitas. And I could not believe that Waititi forced moviegoers to watch Thor argue with the Hulk’s S.H.I.E.L.D. Quinjet over who was the most powerful Avenger. I mean . . . really? The Hulk actually went out of his way to program the jet’s computer to acknowledge him as the most powerful Avenger? That scene was so unfunny that in the end, it became sheer torture to watch.

Hela’s constant complaints about her father’s failure to appreciate her only reminded me of Loki’s petulant man pain in “THOR”. Only her carping was punctuated by jokes and witty comments. Worse, this barrage of humor prevented the screenplay from exploring Hela’s revelations about Asgard’s imperial past. The overuse of humor also transformed Thor’s character. Everyone made such a big deal about Chris Hemsworth’s comedic talents in recent years that I suspect that Marvel had decided to exploit it in this third Thor movie. Well, it turned out to be too much, as far as I was concerned. I have been aware of Hemsworth’s comedic talents since “THOR” back in 2011. But Marvel picked the wrong movie and the wrong director to exploit that talent to an excessive degree. Hemsworth came off as some semi-witty California surfer than the Asgardian God of Thunder. Between the characterizations, the dramatic moments robbed for the sake of humor and the barrage of jokes, it was just too much.

Unlike many film critics and MCU fans, I have always enjoyed the franchise’s Thor films. Well, I certainly did enjoy the first two featuring Chris Hemsworth. But I cannot say the same about this third film, “THOR: RAGNAROK”. It both annoyed and disappointed me on so many levels. Although I found the cast led by Hemsworth rather first-rate, I was disappointed by some of the film’s characterizations and the plot holes. But I was especially disappointed by the film’s use of humor. In the end, Kevin Feige, Marvel Films, the movie’s screenwriters and Taika Waititi took a potentially epic comic book movie and transformed it into a long, goddamn joke fest. By the time I left the movie theater, I felt disgusted.

 

“WONDER WOMAN” (2017) Review

 

“WONDER WOMAN” (2017) Review

Since the release of “MAN OF STEEL” back in 2013, the D.C. Comics Extended Universe (DCEU) franchise has been in a conundrum. Although the 2013 film and with the two movies that followed – “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”and “SUICIDE SQUAD” – were all box office hits, they had been heavily condemned by many film critics. Then along came “WONDER WOMAN”, the first superhero movie that featured a woman in the lead since 2005. 

Directed by Patty Jenkins, “WONDER WOMAN” is basically a flashback on the origins of Princess Diana of Thymerica aka Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman. Some time after the events of “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, Diana received a package at her Antiquities Curator office at the Louvre Museum. It came from Bruce Wayne aka Batman and it contained the original photographic plate of her, Steve Trevor and their comrades during World War I:

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The photographic plate led Diana to recall her past, starting with her childhood on Thymerica Island. While being raised by her mother, the Amazonian Queen Hippolyta, Diana learns about Zeus’ creation of mankind and his son Ares’ jealousy of his father’s creation and the latter’s attempts to destroy humans. After the other Mount Olympus gods were killed by Ares, because of their attempts to stop him, Zeus created a weapon for the Amazonians, a “Godkiller”, in case Ares decides to return. Although Queen Hippolyta has no trouble telling Diana about Zeus, Ares and the other Mount Olympus gods; she forbids her sister and military leader of the Amazons, Antiope, to train Diana. Eventually she relents and demands that Antiope train Diana harder than the other Amazons.

During the last year of World War I, Diana rescues an American military pilot named Captain Steve Trevor, after his plane crashes off Themyscira’s coast. The island is soon invaded by German sailors from a cruiser, pursuing Trevor. The Amazons engage and kill all of the German sailors, but Antiope sacrifices herself to save Diana. Interrogated with the Lasso of Hestia, Trevor informs the Amazons about World War I, his position as an Allied spy and his mission to deliver a notebook he had stolen from the Spanish-born chief chemist for the German Army, Dr. Isabel Maru. The latter is attempting to engineer a deadlier form of mustard gas for General Erich Ludendorff at a weapons facility in the Ottoman Empire. Against her mother’s wishes, Diana decides to help Steve’s war efforts by leaving Themyscira and accompanying him to London. Recalling Hippolyta’s tales about Ares, she believes the latter is responsible for the war and hopes to kill him with the help of the Lasso of Hestia and the “Godkiller” sword that Zeus had left behind.

As I had earlier pointed out, “WONDER WOMAN” received a great deal of critical acclaim. In fact, it proved to be the first film in the DCEU franchise to do so, leading many to regard it as better than its three predecessors. Do I feel the same about the movie? Not quite. Do not get me wrong, “WONDER WOMAN” struck me as a first-rate movie that I found very entertaining. As a woman, I found it personally satisfying that it proved to the first successful comic book heroine film. More importantly, it was also the first comic but the first to be directed by a woman. In the end, “WONDER WOMAN” became one of my top favorite movies from the summer of 2017. Many people were surprised that most of the film – namely the flashback – was set during the last month of World War I, especially since Wonder Woman’s origin began during World War II. It could be that Warner Brothers wanted to avoid any comparisons with Marvel’s Captain America, whose origin began around the same time. I am glad that the movie was mainly set during World War. One, I feel that it would have been compared to Marvel’s 2011 film, “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”. But more importantly, the World War I setting meshed better with the film’s portrayal of one of the villains, Erich Ludendorff. And without the World War I setting, I would have never experienced one of the best action sequences I had seen this summer – Wonder Woman’s foray into “No Man’s Land”, as seen in the images below:

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Thinking about the No Man’s Land” sequence reminded me of other action scenes in the movie that I found satisfying. Those scenes include a montage of Diana’s training as a warrior, the Amazons’ defense of Thymerica against invading German sailors, Diana and Steve’s encounter with a group of German spies in a London alley. The “No Man’s Land” sequence eventually led to another fight in which Diana, Steve and their companions led a liberation of the Belgian town Veld, which had been occupied by the Germans. You know what? It is possible that I may have enjoyed this sequence even more than the charge across “No Man’s Land”. One, it lasted longer. And the sequence featured more of a team effort between Diana, Steve, their three companions and troops from the Allied Powers. In fact, one scene featured Steve remembering an Amazonian tactic from the Thymerica battle and utilizing it with Diana in Veld. I literally smiled at that moment.But “WONDER WOMAN” was not all about action scenes. Personally, I regard the movie as a character study of its lead character. Ever since Diana had informed Bruce Wayne that she had walked away from mankind for nearly a century in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”, I have always wondered what led her to become that slightly cynical woman. For me, “WONDER WOMAN” told that story . . . to a certain extent, thanks to Allan Heinberg’s screenplay. The Princess Diana aka Diana Prince that we see in this film is an intelligent woman with a fierce sense of justice and duty. Whereas her mother and other fellow Amazons want to isolate themselves from humanity and the rest of the world at large, Diana views Steve’s arrival and his revelation about the war being raged to save humanity from what she believed was Ares’ destructive influence. Diana is also portrayed as a compassionate woman incapable of turning a blind eye to the devastating effects of war upon the Belgian civilian population and servicemen like Charlie, a Scottish sharpshooter and ally of Steve’s, who suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder (PSTD). She also possessed enough compassion to become aware of the discrimination that Steve’s other two friends faced – the Blackfoot warrior and smuggler Chief Napi and the French Moroccan secret agent, Sameer.But Diana’s belief in Ares’ role in the Great War also revealed some negative aspects of her personality. One aspect of Diana’s personality in this film was her naivety. There were scenes in which her naivety about the “world of man” that I found humorous – namely her shopping trip with Steve’s assistant, Etta Camp; her introduction to ice cream; and her discussions with Steve about human sexuality. But there were plenty of times when I found her naivety very frustrating – especially in those scenes in which Steve tries to explain the true ambiguous nature of human beings and the war. A good example was Diana’s interruption of the Allied Powers’ high command and her attempt to instruct the generals on how to “run a war”. Many found this scene as an example of Diana’s feminine empowerment. I found it as an example of her naivety and a bit of arrogance on her part. In these scenes, Diana seemed to display a stubborn, almost hard-headed and blind reluctance to let go of her misguided beliefs. Because of this unwillingness to believe she might be wrong about matters, Diana killed one of the characters believing him to be Ares without any real proof. I found this moment rather frightening. This hard-headed trait revealed what I believe was one example of Diana’s penchant for extreme behavior. Diana’s angry and frightening reaction to Steve’s sacrifice was another example. And the hard lessons she had learned about humanity, along with personal tragedy, led to her almost century long foray into emotional isolation. In many ways, Diana’s journey is that if an idealist, whose positive assumptions had been ripped away in the most painful manner.

While watching “WONDER WOMAN”, it seemed obvious to me that Patty Jenkins is more than a competent director. She is obviously first-rate. Mind you, I do not believe that she possesses Zack Snyder’s razor-sharp eye for imagery. And yet, judging from the sequences of the Thymerica battle, Diana and Steve’s arrival in London; along with the outstanding “No Man’s Land” sequence, it seems obvious to me that Jenkins has a solid grasp of imagery and is capable of being a visually original director. It helped that cinematographer Matthew Jensen and film editor Martin Walsh contributed to Jenkins’ visual presentation of “WONDER WOMAN”. I would not consider the costume designs from “WONDER WOMAN” to be among the best of Lindy Hemming’s career and a costume designer. But I thought she did an excellent job in designing the Greco-style costumes for the Amazons – including Diana’s Wonder Woman costume. And I found her re-creation of the 1918 wartime costumes for the characters of both genders well done:

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Although I believe there is a great deal to admire about “WONDER WOMAN”, I do have a few complaints. One of them happened to be Jenkins’ use of slow-motion filming in many of the film’s action sequences. Yes, I realize that Jenkins was not the first director to use this form of filming action scenes. Her fellow DCEU director, Zack Snyder, was notorious for his use of this technique – especially in his pre-DCEU films. Unfortunately, I found myself getting tired of the slow-motion technique not long after ten to fifteen minutes into the film. I mean . . . good grief! Jenkins not only used it in the film’s every action sequence, but also in one scene that featuring one of the Amazons’ combat training sessions. I just got tired of it . . . really fast.My second problem with the film centered around the final action scene between Wonder Woman and Ares. I had no problems with Ares’ revelation about his identity. And I certainly had no problems with his revelations about the true nature of humanity and the war itself. And I found Wonder Woman’s reactions to his revelations and Steve Trevor’s sacrifice rather interesting. But why . . . why in God’s name did Jenkins and Heinberg find it necessary to have Diana say the following line to Ares before their final duel?“It’s about what you believe. And I believe in love. Only love will truly save the world.”

While the sentiment is lovely, it contradicted Diana’s cynical attitude and words to Bruce Wayne, following Clark Kent’s death in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”:

“A hundred years ago I walked away from mankind; from a century of horrors… Men made a world where standing together is impossible.”

Now, one could say that Diana had acquired this attitude during the 97 years between her showdown with Ares and the incident with Doomsday. But she made it clear to Bruce that she had walked away “a hundred years”, which is roughly between the end of World War I and “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN”, save a three years. Why did Jenkins and Heinberg allow her to spout that line about how love with save the world? Was this some emotional sop to those critics and moviegoers who wanted to pretend that Diana had managed to avoid wallowing in her grief over Steve and disappointment over Ares’ revelation? If so, that is bad writing . . . or bad timing. Jenkins and Heinberg could have saved the line for Diana’s narration at the end of the movie. After she had received the photographic plate and Steve’s watch from Bruce . . . and after she had finally lifted herself from her cynicism and detached air.

I certainly had no complaints about the movie’s performances. Mind you, there were two performances that failed to knock my socks off. One came from veteran actor Danny Huston, who found himself saddled with the clichéd riddled character of General Erich Ludendorff. Huston did not give a bad performance. Being a first-rate actor, he did the best that he could with the material given to him. But the screenwriter’s portrayal of the character reeked with the Hollywood cliché of an aggressive German military officer, straight from the “Ve haf vays of making you talk” school of screenwriting. And I believe this may have hampered Huston’s performance. I also had a slight problem with Eugene Brave Rock, who portrayed one of Steve Trevor’s allies, Chief Napi. Rock was not a bad actor and I found him very likeable. But it was easy for me to see that he was not exactly the most experienced actor. And I was not surprised to discover that he had spent most of his film career as a stuntman and stunt trainer. When Ewan Bremner first appeared in the film, I suspected that he had been cast to portray another one of the many comic roles he has portrayed in the past. However, his character Charlie proved to be another kettle of fish. Thanks to Bremner’s skillful performance, Charlie proved to be a tragic figure whose peace of mind had been ravaged by the violence of war. Elena Anaya, whom I have never heard of before this film, gave an intelligent and intense performance asIsabel Maru aka Doctor Poison, the Spanish-born chemist recruited to create chemical weapons for the German Army and specifically, for General Ludendorff. Unlike the latter, Dr. Maru is a villainess straight from the pages of the D.C. Comics titles for Wonder Woman. And yet, thanks to Anaya’s performance, she was not portrayed in a ham-fisted manner. But I must admit that I adored Saïd Taghmaoui’s portrayal of French Moroccan secret agent, Sameer. I found his performance charming, witty and very intelligent. And in my view, he had the best line in the movie (about Diana, of course):

“I am both frightened… and aroused.”

Connie Nielsen’s portrayal of Diana’s mother, Queen Hippolyta of Thymerica proved to be more interesting that I had assumed it would be. Frankly, I thought Queen Hippolyta would be a somewhat bland parent figure, who was simply protective of her only daughter. In the end, Hippolyta’s protectiveness toward her daughter proved to have a major impact upon the latter. This same protectiveness, along with her world-weary response to Diana’s decision to leave Thymerica revealed the true, ambiguous nature of the character and Nielsen did an excellent job in conveying it. Robin Wright had an easier time in her portrayal of Diana’s aunt, Antiope. The actress not only did a great job, I was especially impressed at how she embraced the more physical aspects of the role. After all, Antiope was the Amazonian army’s lead general. I was very surprised to learn that the actress who portrayed Etta Candy, Steve Trevor’s assistant, was none other than Lucy Davis, who had a supporting role in the 1995 miniseries, “PRIDE AND PREJUDICE”. Personally, I adored her portrayal of Etta. Like Taghmaoui, she was a walking embodiment of charm and wit. I especially enjoyed Davis’ performance in the scene that featured Diana and Etta’s shopping trip. David Thewlis gave a superficially pleasant performance as the dignified Sir Patrick Morgan, a diplomatic liaison with the Imperial War Cabinet. I found him intelligent, subtle and a little tricky.

I have a confession to make. I have always liked Gal Gadot as a screen presence. Honestly. She has a very strong presence. But I have never considered her as a top-notch actress . . . until recent years. But I must admit that her portrayal of Princess Diana of Thymerica aka Diana Prince aka Wonder Woman really knocked my socks off. I was impressed at how Gadot managed to portray Diana during two distinctive phases in her life – the naive, yet stubborn young woman who seemed convinced that she knows what is best for the world in this film; and the cynical and weary woman who is somewhat contemptuous of the world in “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. And she did such a marvelous job in conveying this two phases in Diana’s life . . . in two different films. Ms. Gadot has come a long way. I think Steve Trevor might one of my favorite roles portrayed by Chris Pine. Aside from the fact that he has great chemistry with Gadot, Pine gave a very entertaining portrayal of the American intelligence officer who first befriends Diana and later, falls in love with her. I found it fascinating to watch Pine convey Steve’s intelligence, cunning and wry sense of humor. I also found it fascinating to watch how Pine conveyed Steve’s struggles with Diana’s naivety, stubborness and impulsive behavior. And he did so with a great deal of skill.

“WONDER WOMAN” is the fourth film released through the D.C. Comics Extended Universe (DCEU). And like the other three, I found myself not only enjoying it very much, but also impressed by it. Aside from a few flaws, I thought director Patty Jenkins did a first-rate job in telling movie audiences the story of how Princess Diana of Thymerica became Wonder Woman . . . and how she also became that world weary woman from 2016’s “BATMAN V. SUPERMAN: DAWN OF JUSTICE”. And she did so with a first-rate movie crew and a wonderful cast led by Gal Gadot.

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“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

 

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” (2017) Review

Before I started on this review, I found myself wondering which “phase” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) that “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” found itself. Phase Two? Phase Three? In fact, I continued to ponder more about the franchise’s current phase than about the plot for this movie. Until I finally shook myself out of this stupor.

Back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY” during the month of August, more or less a graveyard for summer films. I suspect that Kevin Fiege had low expectations of the film’s performance at the box office, due to its unfamiliarity with the general public. The movie proved them wrong and went on to become a major box office hit for that year. Due to its success back in 2014, Marvel Films/Disney Studios released a sequel, “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” in the more exulted release date in early May, three years later. James Gunn, who had directed the 2014 film, returned to direct this film. And although he had also served as co-writer of the first film with Nicole Perlman, he served as this film’s sole screenwriter.

Following the events of the 2014 film, Peter Quill aka Starlord and his friends have become renowned throughout the galaxy as the “Guardians of the Galaxy”. The movie begins with the Guardians delivering stolen and valuable batteries to a race called the Sovereign, after they had protected the items from an inter-dimensional monster. In exchange, the Sovereign deliver Gamora’s adopted sister Nebula, who had been caught earlier trying to steal the batteries. However, this peaceful transaction is disrupted when one of the Guardians, Rocket the Raccoon, steal some of the batteries for himself. The Guardians find themselves hunted by a fleet of ships controlled by the Sovereign and their leader, Ayesha. They eventually crash land on a planet inhabited by a mysterious figure, who destroys the Sovereign fleet for them. That figure turns out to be Ego, Peter Quill’s powerful father first mentioned in the 2014 film. Ego turns out to be a god-like Celestial that manipulated the matter around its consciousness to form his “home” planet. He explains to Peter that he had projected a humanoid guise to travel the universe and discover a purpose. He eventually fell in love with Peter’s mother Meredith Quill. Following her death, Ego hired Yondu to collect the young Quill, but the boy was never delivered and Ego has been searching for his son ever since. The latter invites Quill, Gamora, and Drax to his home planet. Meanwhile, Rocket and Groot remain behind to repair the ship and guard Nebula. Unbeknownst to all, Ayesha has hired Peter’s former mentor, Ravagers leader Yondu Udonta to hunt them down. But the Guardians eventually discover that Ego might prove to be a bigger problem than either Ayesha or Yondu’s crew.

I was surprised by the characterization featured in “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It had been one of the strong points of the 2014 movie. But director-writer James Gunn took it to another level in this film, as Gunn’s screenplay further explored the main characters’ backgrounds and emotional concerns. More important, the characterizations featured in this film led to better performances by the cast.

One good example was the exploration of Peter Quill’s relationships with the two father figures in his life – his biological father Ego and his mentor, Yondu Udonta. Peter’s search for a permanent father figure proved to have an ironic twist, considering his longing to meet his real father, Ego’s charismatic personality and his occasionally hostile relationship with Yondu. Chris Pratt had to step up his game to develop Peter’s character even further. He did … and proved that he could be a excellent dramatic actor … for the second (or third) time in his career. Kurt Russell gave a first-rate and charismatic performance in his portrayal of Ego. And thanks to Zoe Saldana and Karen Gillan’s excellent performances, the movie also explored Gamora’s relationships with her adoptive sister, Nebula and their adoptive father, the villainous Thanos. Although the latter did not appear in the movie, his presence was strongly felt – especially in the confrontation between the two women as they confronted the circumstances that led to their estrangement. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also featured the further development of Peter and Gamora’s relationship. The potential romance in this relationship not only manifested in a charming dance between the pair on Ego’s planet, but also a heated quarrel in which Peter expressed his frustration at being kept at a distance by Gamora. This scene featured great acting from both Pratt and Saldana.

Bradley Cooper had been highly praised for his voice performance as Rocket the Racoon in the 2014 film. The character’s past was not really explored in this film. Considering his origin as a lab experiment, I found this a pity. But Rocket’s problems with being part of a group and his emotional issues were touched upon – especially in a strong and emotional scene that featured a conversation between him and Yondu, while they were being held prisoner. Both Cooper and actor Michael Rooker nearly stole the movie with this scene between Rocket and Yondu. Also, Rocket found himself serving as the toddler Groot’s protector – a strange twist, considering that the latter had been his protector in the previous film. I understand that actor Vin Diesel continued to provide the voice for Groot – and yes, I do mean Baby Groot. I thought Marvel would hire someone other than the deep-voiced Diesel for the role. But they brought him back. And I am amazed that he was able to forgo his usual deep voice to portray the toddler Groot. And speaking of the Yondu, his past reared its ugly head following the revelation that the other Ravager leaders had exiled his group due to child trafficking on Ego’s behalf – including the kidnapping the young Peter Grill from Earth. This revelation also led to another in which audiences learn the true strength of Peter and Yondu’s relationship.

The very literal Drax the Destroyer forms a strange friendship with a young empath named Mantis, who has been forced to serve as Ego’s “pet” for a number of years. Although Drax’s needling personality and strange sense of humor made his regard for the naive and sheltered seem abusive, I was surprised at how the pair managed to grow close – to the point that Drax nearly sacrificed himself for her safety. In these scenes involving Drax, Dave Bautista proved once again that he was a better actor than many had assumed, due to his past as a professional wrestler. And he had a first-rate co-star in Pom Klementieff’s subtle and charming portrayal of the empathic Manits.

“GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” also saw the return of Yondu’s right-hand man, Kraglin, who was forced to overcome his sense of self-preservation in order to come to his captain’s aid when the crew turned on Yondu. Ayesha, the Golden High Priestess and leader of the Sovereign, proved to be another interesting role for actress Elizabeth Debicki’s filmography. Ayesha proved to be not only interesting, but also one of the most arrogant characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) … the type of character that eventually rubbed Rocket the wrong way. Audiences also got an expanded look into the world of the Ravagers. Thanks to Gunn’s script, I realized that most of them – including Yondu – was not as despicable as I had originally assumed. And I was shocked and pleasantly to see the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Ving Rhames and Michael Rosenbaum as among the older leaders of the Ravangers.

But despite the movie’s strong characterizations, I was not as impressed by “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” as I thought I would be. It lacked something that the 2014 movie possessed – a strong narrative. At first, I thought Ayesha would prove to be the heroes’ main protagonists, considering that she had hired the Ravagers to hunt down the Guardians in the first place. However, about midway into the movie, I realized that she was nothing more than a plot device (and a tiresome one at that) used by Gunn to drive the Guardians into the path of Ego, Peter’s father. And in the end, it was really about him … and his plan to remake the universe into his image, using the seedlings he had implanted on different planets, impregnating various females like Meredith Quill and using his offsprings like Peter.

I know … this sounds confusing. Let me put it this way. For years, Ego traveled to different parts of the universe, planting seedlings on different planets. Then he seduced and impregnated women like Meredith so that he can utilize the powers of his offsprings to activate the seedlings … and he can terraform those planets into his image. As it turned out, Peter was the only offspring who had the power to help him activate the seedlings. Personally, I found this story rather lame. It was more or less just another “meglomaniac” trying to conquer the universe. In a way, it reminded me of Thanos’ narrative within the MCU involving the Infinity Stones … only it involved “seedlings” and Ego’s offsprings. I found this narrative less original and with more shortcuts. The film’s minor plot lines involving the characters’ emotional arcs struck me as more interesting.

The movie also featured the usual first-rate visual effects. I was surprised that so many visual effects companies were involved in the film’s production. I think I managed to count at least nine of them. Wow. Nine companies involved in the visual effects? Hmmm … perhaps I should not have been surprised. “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2” seemed to lack a cohesive visual style, despite having a single production designer, Scott Chambliss. Some people were not impressed by the visuals for Ego’s planet, as shown below:

Personally, I was. Mind you, there was nothing mind-blowing about the visual effects for Ego’s planet. But I had enjoyed them, nonetheless. However, I was impressed by the special effects used to visually convey Rocket, Groot, Kraglin and Yondu’s journey across the galaxy – involving several jumps. I found it very effective and rather funny.

Peter Quill’s audio cassette tape played a major role in the score for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY”. Near the end of that particular movie, he came across the package that his mother Meredith had given him just before her death. The package contained another cassette with more of her favorite songs of her youth. I hate to say this, but I was not that impressed by the collection of songs used for “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”, aside from one or two. Even more surprising is that I found the songs featured in the movie’s end credits to be a lot more entertaining … and right for the movie. Pity.

Overall, I enjoyed “GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2”. It was not exactly a disappointment thanks to the strong characterizations featured in the film and the first-rate performances by a cast led by Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana. But I must be honest, it was almost a ghost of the 2014 film. And this is due to what I believe was a weak narrative that included a villain with goals that struck me as unoriginal. It is a pity that Nicole Perlman did return to serve as director James Gunn’s co-writer in this second film. I had the odd feeling that needed a collaborator for a stronger narrative.