BLACK PANTHER: WAKANDA FOREVER

By Marc S. Sanders

Marvel does it right.  DC doesn’t.  Black Panther: Wakanda Forever  is not a perfect film, but it’s not Black Adam.  The latest Marvel production offers sharp visual effects and action scenes, along with thought provoking moments that reflect on loss.  Black Adam offers a crusty, yellow lightning bolt on the chest of The Rock.

Director Ryan Coogler was faced with a terrible challenge to make the follow up to his smash hit, Black Panther.  The star at the center of the film, Chadwick Boseman, unexpectedly passed away from colon cancer.  A screenplay for the film’s sequel had to suddenly be rehashed.  A unified cast had to work with a hole in its structure.  Coogler opted not to recast the role of T’Challa, the King of the fictional African nation, Wakanda.  That was a smart choice.  Boseman’s portrayal was so embraced in that film, as well as three other Marvel chapters, that he was seemingly irreplaceable.  T’Challa was not just another James Bond or Batman.

I liked most of Wakanda Forever.  First and foremost, the primary cast is mostly female and Marvel’s early reputation with female characters left a lot to be desired when all they would do is flirt with the action star and scream for help.  As well, none of the women characters were very diverse.  The African influence of the Black Panther characters demonstrate that the Marvel universe is unlimited in appearance and style.  (Star Wars productions of late prove that as well.) 

The design of the picture is also gorgeous.  I still yearn for Wakanda to be a real locale that can be toured.  I’m sure Disney is already giving this some thought.  At times, it was hard to know what overhead locations were mere CGI and what was real.  The backdrops are seamless.  The whole movie is gorgeous. 

The sensitivity to the loss of Boseman is especially handled beautifully.  The opening sequence is a ceremony we have all been waiting for since the actor’s death two years prior to the release of the film.  Some of the customs and practices might be fictional, albeit inspired by what has been researched in other factual nations and observances, but it is also endearing.  The silence of the Marvel logo montage will especially grab you.

Wakanda Forever is carried primarily by Letitia Wright as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  The film takes place one year after T’Challa has passed away from a disease and she is not ready to burn the funeral garb she wore when his soul was sent off to the ancestors.  However, while Wakanda was once thought to be the sole resource of Vibranium, the most powerful element in the world, a new character is introduced from under the ocean.  Namor (Tenoch Huerta) is the mutant who leads a nation of underwater dwellers with their own source of Vibranium.  He proposes that his nation works in conjunction with Wakanda to protect what they possess from other nations (like the United States and France; though why must Marvel show these countries in a bad light?) who could potentially use this commodity for nefarious purposes. 

From this seed in the storyline, subplots are branched out.  They just don’t work, though.  Wakanda’s American ally, Agent Everett Ross (Martin Freeman), is brought back into the fold.  He only adds unnecessary running time to a very long film.  First, he provides a lead on to a new character, that’s expected to fill the hole left by Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man.  A character named Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne) who I have learned becomes the super hero Iron Heart with a new Iron suit.  After that Ross is left to watch Anderson Cooper on CNN as we have already seen the plot unfolding for ourselves, and have conversations with a character named Valentina Allegra de Fontaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus, looking at her most uninteresting and boring).  I know. This character serves as teaser fodder for what the MCU promises in future installments, but why is it necessary?  I believe this is her third appearance between the films and Disney + shows.  All she does is drag the stories down.  Wakanda Forever is a 2 hour and 40-minute film, that could have saved thirty minutes without the characters from Freeman and Dreyfus, and likely Thorne as well.  Let’s just stick with the Wakandans and forget about advertising what’s coming next from the Marvel factory, please.

Another issue with the film is the delay of showing the new Black Panther.  That’s what we ultimately paid for.  The middle section of this long running time had me yearning for when I could see the new suit in action, and who was going to wear it.  When it finally arrives in the third act, I gotta say I was let down.  While there’s a newly inventive design, like each time there was with Iron Man, we don’t see much of what’s new in action and there’s hardly anything that’s novel about it.  Does this Black Panther suit offer any new tricks? 

What’s fortunate for the film is the cast.  Letitia Wright has a good balance of youth segueing into maturity as she toils with loss.  I love this angle in the same way I appreciated the cancer storyline written for Natalie Portman in Thor: Love And Thunder.  Superpowers do not shield us from what slowly dwindles our lives away.  Angela Basset remains a very strong actor after an over forty-year career as the surviving Queen of Wakanda.  She commands a powerful presence of authority.  Danai Gurira as the spear wielding acrobatic Wakandan warrior Okoye is absolutely cool in action scenes.  She also has well written scenes to perform with the other two leads, as her character’s commitment to country is tested. 

Ironically, the Namor character is one of the oldest Marvel characters in print, introduced long before Spider-Man or the Hulk came on the page.  I was never a fan of the character though.  He just didn’t have a cool enough costume for me as it was only a bathing suit and he had wings on his ankles.  Meh.  I feel the same way here.  The back story of the character is altered to fit the mold of the script, and that’s okay, but I didn’t feel for this antagonist’s plight.  In the prior film, I was more on the side Eric Killmonger’s (Michael B. Jordan) cause than I was on T’Challa’s.  In this film, Namor is just a guy to do battle with while he flies and swims.

Ryan Coogler is a detailed director.  When I’m in Wakanda, I want to explore every building and hop aboard each vehicle that hovers overhead.  He leaves no stone unturned.  I would have chosen for some of the action scenes to be shot in the daytime so I could get a better look at what goes on.  I feel that way about all action and adventure films.  However, a darkened action scene in nearly any Marvel film is much more articulated than any scene, daylight or otherwise, in Black Adam from DC.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a good film, but not great, mostly due to its overstayed running time.  What should have been cut from the final reel is obvious.  Yet, good writing and acting allows for the film that many Marvel fans needed after one of their heroes left us.  Losing Chadwick Boseman likely equates to how we lost our Superman, Christopher Reeve.  It seemed so unfair that someone who offered such heroic optimism and joy could be taken from our reach so early in life.  At least, the loss of Boseman was thankfully not washed over with a replacement that could never fill his void.

DAREDEVIL

By Marc S. Sanders

Mark Steven Johnson is probably a director you never heard of. He made two very bad movies based on Marvel’s character Ghost Rider featuring Nicholas Cage. Still Johnson has one redeeming quality and that is the very underappreciated Daredevil featuring Ben Affleck in the title role.

It’s not so much that Affleck is good in the role as blind lawyer/vigilante Matt Murdock aka the title character. More so, is that Johnson writes and directs a solid film very faithful to the source material. So, reader, what if you tell me you never read the comic books? My reply, so what! There’s still a lot of fun and colorful characters to get caught up in and you should have no trouble getting the hang of it.

Michael Clarke Duncan’s hulking physique was always his best attribute and serves him well as the crime warlord Kingpin aka Wilson Fisk, the puppet master of Hell’s Kitchen and the man responsible for the death of Murdock’s washed up boxer father. Colin Farrell chews the scenery (maybe little too much on my repeat viewing many years later) as Bullseye, a mercenary villain who can use any object as a precise throwing weapon, whether it be a card, a pencil, or shards of glass. It’s a ridiculous and unlikely talent but Farrell makes the most of it and the character serves as a perfect foil to the blind vigilante hero who uses his remaining four senses to skillfully fight and dodge and acrobat his way through rooftops over the city at night.

Jon Faverau (before directing Iron Man) is welcome relief as Murdock’s legal partner with some good humor material. Jennifer Garner is filler in the role of Elektra, a skilled fighter with trident weapons in each hand and the film’s standard love interest looking for revenge. Garner is nothing special. I’ll say it. She’s here based on her looks and her body and at the time she was the action go to gal (thanks to her TV show Alias) when Angelina Jolie was not available.

Affleck is fine in the part. He’s got the looks and physique. You can easily believe he’s a lawyer. If anything, I could have done without his voiceover narration. I think the film narrates itself fine without additional instructions. I’d argue that Affleck and Johnson could have taken this franchise further. At the time, it actually got good reviews. What did not help were the published exploitations of Affleck with his girlfriend at the time (now new bride), Jennifer Lopez (and later Garner), as well as his other poor choices of roles like Gigli and the insultingly embarrassing Pearl Harbor. (Main character Raif McCauley I have not yet forgotten!!!!)

Years later, some of the fight scenes look clunky. Some of the mid 2000’s alt rock is a little much (but Evanescence is always welcome, especially during a nicely dramatic rainy funeral scene). However, Johnson still has some tricks up his sleeve that work really well. He uses a great filming technique where Daredevil can see by means of sonic waves of sound thus making him more attuned to the trajectory of a bullet or where to find his adversaries. So, to pit a blind guy against the greatest marksman…yeah that’s a dual worth seeing. This gimmick was invented in the comics by Stan Lee and John Romita, yet very well captured in the medium of film. Another great bit is to translate how Daredevil can tell if a person is lying, a great skill for any lawyer to have. He can hear their heartbeat. Duh! Especially well done is how Murdock can see the facial features of Elekra during a brief escapade in the rain. Johnson CGIs it in midnight blue to leave an impression. Yes, Garner’s best moment comes when she’s animated in CGI blue.

The film offers a great theme of superimposing the devil image of the vigilante against the backdrop of the catholic church and other opportunities for a cross to intrude a scene. It hints that Matt Murdock is a religious catholic, but not enough. It seemingly questions the actions of its hero. Affleck even asks himself at one point “Am I the bad guy?” It’s a good additional dimension to the character; one I wish Johnson capitalized on a little more. When is a vigilante truly crossing over into the realm of sin?

Daredevil is worth watching and not worth comparing to the Netflix series. The product is served in two different mediums, one of which has the luxury of telling its story over a span of 10 hours each year. The original film, though, is condensed quite well in origin and character. Live with that and feel forsaken.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER

By Marc S. Sanders

Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love And Thunder doesn’t just operate as a standard Marvel Super Hero movie.  I think it encapsulates what moviegoers treasure when watching a film, and that consists of a gamut of emotions with the opportunity to absorb the best in sight and sound.  Even if we are watching a guy fly through the skies with a cape that’ll be marketed into a million toys and t-shirts, sight and sound are nothing without brains behind a script.  It’s fortunate that a director like Waititi always works with that in mind.  Marvel overseer Kevin Feige knows how to recruit talent behind the camera and you just can’t go wrong with the architect of a spoof on the surface, yet an all too horrifyingly real film underneath, like the widely acclaimed Jo Jo Rabbit.

I’ve always laid claim to the fact that movies largely recognized as “tear jerkers” like Steel Magnolias and Terms Of Endearment are actually comedies first, and then dramatic sob stories second.  I’m serious about that observation.  Why?  Because if a film is going to go to great lengths to risk the outcome of one of its main characters, then it must get its audience to embrace and deeply love that person first.  The best avenue to that approach is to outrageously laugh and cheer that character on ahead of what’s to come.  Taika Waititi’s second film to center on the God of Thunder does just that.  The best reward I got from Thor: Love And Thunder is that I laughed quite often (as the trailers imply), but I also teetered on tears as well.  Good fantasy storytelling will incorporate an all too real conflict with its protagonists and then introduce the strange and unusual as an escape.  The best example may be The Wizard Of Oz, and the simple set up of Dorothy and the risk of her perishing with her dog Toto in a threating tornado.  More recently, I also think about Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth centering on a young girl in early twentieth century war torn Europe.  Again, Waititi’s coming of age during Nazi occupation opus, Jo Jo Rabbit, follows this formula as well.  Without spoiling too much from Thor’s latest adventure, Waititi presents an all too real and unforgiving circumstance for one of the film’s characters and then segues into his delightfully and never too weird assortment of settings and characters.

It’d be easy to think that by what may be the sixth or seventh time we’ve seen Chris Hemsworth in the garb of this character that anything inventive would have been exhausted by now.  Not so.  A new dimension in storytelling arrives midway through the film that presents a different crisis for the proud God.  Hemsworth really approaches it beautifully.  It was reminiscent of Christopher Reeve in the original Superman, actually.

A supporting cast of return players work well together, particularly Natalie Portman, who is given a much more fleshed out and well considered character arc than her two previous Thor films. (Early on, Marvel Studios was notorious for not writing good female characters in any of their pictures.  They were just presented as glamorous damsels in distress. Thankfully, that’s well behind them by now.)  Portman returns as the on again/off again love interest, Dr. Jane Foster, for Thor.  Even better though, Jane actually becomes Thor!!!!! (No spoiler there.  Just look at the trailer or marketing poster.)  There’s great on-screen interaction with Portman and Hemsworth, even when it’s a montage of past dating episodes like in ridiculous Halloween costumes or having a domestic squabble as any typical married couple might have.  Hollywood should reunite these two for a romantic comedy in the vein of Rob Reiner/Nora Ephron material.  Chris Hemsworth is a much better partner than Ashton Kutcher ever was in a past Natalie Portman film.  Put Chris Hemsworth together with Natalie Portman again and they could become as adoring as Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan did.

By the time the fourth movie comes, does it really matter who the villain is played by?  Well, when you are writing a smart script amid ridiculous visuals like Taika Waititi is known for, the answer is yes.  This film surprisingly opens on a downer prologue that necessitates good dramatic acting amid silly CGI and garishly loud costumes.  It’s fortunate that Christian Bale, who regularly performs on a method level comparable to Daniel Day Lewis, was available to portray the scrawny, pale and scarred Gorr The God Butcher.  Bale puts all his talents into what could’ve been a throwaway role like, say a Ghostbusters bad guy.  (Can anyone tell me who actually played Gozar in the 1984 film????)  This is another notch in Bale’s repertoire of outstanding credits that should not be overlooked.  You can sympathize with Gorr, as well as be frightened of him.  There’s much range in this character on the same level as the Thanos villain from earlier Marvel films.

Russell Crowe has a fun appearance as the God known as Zeus.  He looks over the top ridiculous and he works in antics that seem like they came out of episodes of Who’s Line Is It Anyway?  Put it this way, I haven’t forgotten how Crowe walks down a staircase yet.  If Russell Crowe is anything of an educated performance artist, then when he was getting sized up in wardrobe, I’m sure the wheels were turning and he was considering what tics could work for that of a God drowning proudly in his own vanity.

Tessa Thompson and Taika Waititi are thankfully back, respectively as Valkyrie, King of the fishing/tourist destination New Asgard, and the simply innocent rock guy buddy, Korg.  The Guardians Of The Galaxy are here too.  It’s a fun bit of material they have to play with.

In another director/screenwriter’s hands, any Thor film would likely get boring with its standard formal Shakespearean like vocabulary and artificial CGI.  Isn’t that an ongoing problem with CGI anyway?  So often it looks to fake.  Because Taika Waititi opts for bright colors and odd shapes and sizes of setting and background characters, nothing could look artificial, because the fantasy is always acknowledged as over the top by the very characters occupying the space.  A glass castle of pinks and purples that resembles gigantic glass Mary Jane bongs or science lab beakers is accepted in a Thor film, just as much as munchkin size, owl like creatures with small beaks are a terrorizing army in flying jet skis with mounted laser guns.  Mix in a blaring rock soundtrack and Waititi hits the notes where it’s okay to laugh at the silliness of it all. In other moments, he’ll invite his audience back in from recess to take in what’s hard and difficult to live with and endure.  Again, Waititi pleasantly surprised me with the balancing act of outrageous comedy against crushing drama when he made Jo Jo Rabbit.  The blend works so well here in not so typical Marvel fashion.

Thor: Love And Thunder left me thinking that it is the best of the superhero’s four films.  It’s measure of laughs and choked up drama kept engaged and I appreciated the experience.  Remember, I recalled Steel Magnolias and Terms Of Endearment in this write up.  If you don’t take that comparison lightly, then hopefully you’ll have the same experience I did with this installment of the Marvel franchise.

PS: Hats off to the trailers for not incorporating everything the film has to offer.  Within the first fifteen minutes of the movie, I was actually taken aback by an element I never considered or expected.  It only enhanced my perspective of the film.

PSS: Anyone that knows me, knows that I love Guns N Roses.  Consider me a born-again fan.  Particularly Sweet Child O’ Mine will always be one of my most favorite songs.  This film reminded me that it was the first song my daughter heard the day after she was born, when I sang it to her in the hospital room. 

BLACK PANTHER

By Marc S. Sanders

Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther is a stand out film among what has become an overpopulated Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It is a super hero film for sure, complete with the standard gadgets, super strength and abilities, action and over the top science fiction. Yet, this film did not have to be a superhero narrative to drive home the message of its story. This could have been an Oliver Stone film rooted in political quagmire. It could have been a John Hughes teen rip off film that takes place in a typical Wasp suburban school.

A question embraces this film. Simply, when is it appropriate to share?

Chadwick Boseman plays the title character also known as T’Challa, and following the recent death of his father he becomes the next king of the fictional African based country of Wakanda, a location hidden from the rest of the world so that no one else can take advantage of its most precious resource, Vibranium, which has allowed for the most sophisticated technology, weaponry and even medical advancements ever known. How it’s all lumped together, who knows? Pick up a Marvel Comics Encyclopedia for that answer. T’Challa is tasked with whether it is a moral obligation to share the resource with the rest of the world. However, if it is provided, will the Vibranium be taken advantage of for nefarious purposes?

(SIDE NOTE: Reviewing all of these Marvel films is getting to be trying, as I feel resorted to using the same terminology some times; words and phrases like “hero,” “villain,” “nefarious purposes” and “also known as.”)

His nemesis is Eric Killmonger played by Michael B. Jordan; this guy is going to get an Oscar one day. Killmonger is an educated, skilled soldier and cousin to T’Challa who was abandoned by Wakanda following his own father’s betrayal of the country. He grew up in the projects of Oakland, California. Killmonger returns to Wakanda with the purpose of becoming king and allowing the tech and resources Wakanda possesses to be used by the outside world, particularly by populations of African descent and people of color who have endured a history of suffering. Once again, Marvel Studios scores with a villain you want to root for and endorse. Just like Jeff Bridges’ Obidiah Stane in the first Iron Man film, you have to recognize the stance that Killmonger holds on his side of argument. That’s great writing. It’s not so much that Killmonger is a slaughterer. He really isn’t at all. Once he overthrows the hero, the mission is only just beginning as he wishes to right the wrongs of Wakanda for never providing in the first place. It’s ironic really. This guy sides on the fact that he doesn’t want a wall, while the protagonist is doing all he can to maintain a divider to the outside world. In 2018, was there another film that really reflected the sign of the times so succinctly?

Coogler makes a beautiful sweeping film of country and special effects. The Wakandan ships are very cool. Overhead shots of Africa and the camp bases of various tribes are astonishing. One particular tribe resides on a winter like mountainside and the leaders room is spectaculary decorated in horizontal lumber hangings. T’Challa’s staff of mostly female combat warriors and scientists led by Lupita Nyong’o are really exciting. At times the film takes inspiration from some of the best standards of the James Bond films, as his sister introduces her latest inventions for the Black Panther suit. Naturally, the Black Panther costumes are stand outs in the film, black with glowing power enhancements of purples and yellows.

Is Black Panther worthy of a Best Picture nomination and an abundance of awards attention? I’m still not sure. It’s a very strong piece that is light years ahead of any DC Universe film, but it has great characters and messages like most of the Marvel films and even some of the more recent Bond films featuring Daniel Craig. Maybe it is one of the best films of they year, and maybe it should be a Best Picture nominee, but perhaps only because 2018 did not offer a wealth of extraordinary film achievements to begin with. I found merits in all of the 8 Best Picture nominees in this particular year, but I also found problems with many of them too (don’t get me started on A Star Is Born); shortcomings that in another year with better films would keep many of these nominees from ever being considered for the grand prize.

Yet, as I document these thoughts, I think about Black Panther again. Truly, it does not have anything negative in its feature. Ryan Coogler directed and wrote a very focused and thought provoking film. Yup! It was truly one of the year’s best films.

THOR: RAGNORöK

By Marc S. Sanders

Thor’s third adventure in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, subtitled Ragnarök, is altogether fun, silly and primarily very campy. Sure, Cate Blanchett looks wickedly theatric as Thor’s evil older sibling Hera, but even she is not taking any of this too seriously.

There’s not much to evaluate within this film. Chris Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston return as brothers at odds, Thor & Loki, and get sidetracked on a gladiator battle planet where they encounter a lighter, more tender and funnier Hulk care of Mark Ruffalo. The camp also comes to the forefront by way of Jeff Goldblum as the Gamemaster, a role obviously engineered to cater to his dialect idiosyncrasies.

The film is lots of neon colors of CGI and set piece junk helmed by director Taika Waititi. I commend Marvel Studios for recruiting these (at the time) unheard of directors with insightful visions. While most every Marvel film to date has its own unique appearance, Thor: Ragnarök is a balance of the prior Thor films, banking on the humorous success of the Guardians Of The Galaxy films.

The gem this film offers is combining Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” with a fierce lightening powered one eyed Thor to fend off a few baddies. Compliments also to a bad ass, and sometimes drunk, Tessa Thompson as the Asgardian known as Valkyrie.

A favorite moment is an encounter with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange. Good editing and direction offer an inspired Three Stooges routine where Thor is unexpectedly thrust about down a staircase or through a room. Plays like a great cartoon short.

Ragnarök has some shocking moments in its ending, but the weight of drama or story is none too burdensome.

It’s nothing special of a film, but it is amusing and gleeful, especially when Thor is forced to a chair while Willy Wonka’s “Pure Imagination” plays like annoying elevator music. That is sure to make the God Of Thunder irritable, and we the audience only gain from it.

Thor: Ragnarök is really a fun family movie of adventure, good character design and laughs.

DOCTOR STRANGE

By Marc S. Sanders

The first MCU movie that makes the biggest departure from any of the other installments in the franchise.

Doctor Strange operates on a level beyond punchy powers as Avengers director Joss Whedon noted. The film explores a very far, very fictional belief in the mystical arts and magic. So much so that sometimes characters like The Ancient One and Mordo speak in an English that is so foreign and so confusing. Still, I’m not complaining.

I enjoyed this film immensely. Benedict Cumberbatch is so right in the role of Stephen Strange. His character’s arrogance is not over the top, but necessary and evident. I really liked his transition from expert surgeon to a permanently damaged physical person and then onto The Sorcerer Supreme complete with the Cloak of Levitation, a better and more deserving way to describe it than just another cape.

The morphing of city landscapes and neighborhoods into arced and flipped and reverse mazes are really fun and change shape with crisp sound editing and music.

Good supporting work is also on display from Rachel McAdams, Chiwetel Ejiofor and especially Tilda Swinton. My one wish is that the villain played by the very capable Mads Mikkellsen was fleshed out more. He’s an actor who can handle heavy roles. Regretfully, I don’t think the script gives him enough to do here.

This Marvel chapter stands on its own with little reliance on the other films. However, the green infinity stone at play here is easier to understand now that I’ve seen Avengers: Infinity War. I’m talking about The Time Stone, of course!

Doctor Strange is a solid film; one that I would love to watch again a year from now and likely feel just as entertained.

NOTE: stay away from the 3D Blu Ray discs. Watch it in 2D. Having seen the 3D in theatres the first time, I clearly remember not enjoying the film very much. It was blurry and dark. At times the picture didn’t look crisp. The 3D effort was a nuisance and a terrible distraction. Less is more. Stick with 2D.

CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR

By Marc S. Sanders

I think the Civil War chapter must be one of the best installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The action ranging from fight scenes to car chases to shootouts and explosions are so well executed and edited.

This film lives up to what makes each Marvel character special in their own way, and while most of the attention is naturally focused on Chris Evans’ Captain America and Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier (aka Bucky), the large cast is respectively given numerous moments to shine individually with well-conceived backgrounds and traits beyond just their superpowers.

Interestingly, until the late scene where all the characters collide against one another, the film was very shy of any intentional humor and focused more on what is morally correct in this fantasy world. There was a debate to grapple with, and a threat to both sides of the moral compass. All good layered dimensions, my favorite vice of effective storytelling.

Anyone who says popcorn movies like Avengers are nothing more and simply brainless would fail at recognizing good analysis and dimension. More often than not the MCU succeeds at setting up a dilemma to keep a viewer hooked. Once they are taken…then the storytellers will do something bold like destroy the headquarters, or an airport, or a whole city or Iron Man’s armor, and on and on. Too many other franchises (Transformers, Fast/Furious or DC) bring the buildings down before the cement is dry and the windows are Windexed. That’s when story is neglected for showmanship. There’s no weight to the loss. What do I care who died? You just destroyed the village in order to save it. Disney and Marvel know this and steer clear of those habits.

The cast is so perfectly assembled in Civil War. They interact very well with line exchanges, debates and fisticuffs.

Much of this film was a blur during my first viewing. These are Marvel movies. There are so many now, the scenes all seem to blend together. Yet now I see this particular film is special. Good set pieces, costumes, makeup, visual effects and great performances lead to a great, fun presentation. I’m sold.

SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

By Marc S. Sanders

Spider-Man: Homecoming makes some enormous strides with the most recognizable of all the Marvel Corporate Mascots. I’m just not sure I care for the approach.

The Web Slinger has always been best written when he learns from his mistakes such as grappling with his lack of responsibility that leads to the murder of his beloved Uncle Ben, or washing his red and blue suit with the whites.

In director John Watts film, episodes like these are never discussed. Instead, we witness Spidey foil an ATM robbery. It’s a fun scene straight out of the Saturday morning cartoon, but it ends with a beloved neighborhood mom and pop store going up in flames. The scene plays like a great house party until the parents arrive home early from their out-of-town trip. Now it ain’t so fun anymore. There are a few moments like this in the film that kinda suck the air out of a what’s supposed to be lighthearted script.

Tom Holland as the hero, Peter Parker, aka the high school genius with insecurity, is suitably cast in the role. He looks much more like a kid than his predecessors and he’s got great comic delivery of one liners. Tom Holland is right for the MCU fraternity. He plays well with others.

So Holland really makes sure every action scene is fun but Watts and his screenwriting team of 8 (EIGHT!?!?!?) people pull the rug out because they must insist that the Web Head screw up again and again. Problem is the screw ups are not fun, and they spoil the thrilling set pieces including a well done sequence within the elevator shaft of the Washington Monument. Same goes for a Staten Island Ferry attack. I just kept asking myself, why we can’t we celebrate Spider-Man. Must we be so hard on the guy? Even Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) disapproves. It doesn’t seem fair, I guess.

There is a moment during the 3rd act that salutes a very popular comic issue that truly conveys the hero that Spider-Man must become. As a comic nerd, I was grateful for that. The filmmakers didn’t forget its roots.

Michael Keaton is scary good as Adrian Toomes, the winged villain called The Vulture. He’s not even playing for laughs. Rather he’s playing for fear. I liked it. Keaton is just good in almost anything.

Supporting players are all good as well featuring Marisa Tomei, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon (an especially amusing sidekick pal for Peter), Zendaya and Robert Downey Jr because a little Iron Man/Tony Stark interaction can go a long way.

However, this installment is huge step up from the Andrew Garfield clunkers but not as solid as Sam Raimi’s first two films which remain the best and most loyal to the original vision of the pop culture favorite. Raimi has no difficulty displaying the super hero’s every day faults and mistakes. What he did was make us feel sad about Peter’s errors in his ways, and we cheered when he overcame his obstacles. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, I shake my head with disappointment at the carelessness of Peter, not the mistakes he’s made.

See, to be reckless is not the same as human error. Watts’ interpretation is judged with disdain. Raimi’s is simply empathetic and relatable. That’s the difference in the two interpretations.

PS: My hat off to a great gag with Captain America as a lesson reminder in safety and well-being. It’s not as well remembered that Chris Evans has been hilarious in other films before his superhero days. That’s all brought back with great material for Cap to use. Really smart thinking here.

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 2

By Marc S. Sanders

James Gunn continues his Looney Tunes odyssey helming Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. The silliness is grander, the story is weirder and the characters are now comfortably fleshed out.

Vol 2 is probably not better than the first installment. However, it is more inventive as Gunn takes his film along the hanging thread left over from before. Peter “Star Lord” Quill (Chris Pratt) meets his father at last in the persona of Kurt Russell who goes by the moniker Ego. This is all enthralling to Quill, though his love interest, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) sees beyond the facade.

Ego has invited them to his planet that he created. It pops with colors, serenity and cheer. This plays for a good story; maybe as a better and more developed Star Trek episode.

What differentiates this film from other Marvel films comes out in the third act. This does not consist of just space battles, laser swords and shootouts. The end is something else, something new, entirely. Thus, you are given the film’s greatest strength. I found it to be very imaginative.

Gunn however falls a little bit into his own trap along the way. There are too many relationships and characters that work as filler for side stories. Gamora vs her bitter sister Nebula. Drax (Dave Bautista) with a new, weird antenna on the head character named Mantis and Rocket Racoon and his big mouth with Yondu (Michael Rooker, in a bigger more significant role this time). Oh yeah! There’s also Yondu vs Sylvester Stallone (huh? why? how?) and Yondu vs his mutinous army, The Ravagers. It’s all a little too much for an already busy looking film.

I found it funny that The Ravagers reminded me of the motorcycle gang, The Black Widows, from Clint Eastwood’s Every Which Way… bare knuckle comedies. Those guys were much funnier than these Ravagers. Gunn overstays their welcome as they randomly cackle and heckle poor Baby Groot, the toddler tree thing. That gets old quickly.

Gunn approaches a special kind of humor here. Repeatedly, because these are outer space characters, it’s apparently funny to lend them explaining the punchline of a gag. So if Drax realizes that Peter has the hots for Gamora, he’ll belly laugh and explain literally how Peter feels and do it bigger and louder. Variations of that gag occur quite often among most of the characters. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets old.

GOTG Vol 2 is a fun watch. I don’t foresee this installment carrying the legendary status the first one did or even standing out among the best of the Marvel series, but I will give props to the outcome of what Ego truly is and what his intent depends on. (I won’t spoil that here, of course.)

The cast is great. Saldana is one of the stronger female characters in the MCU. She captures a background to Gamora that is blatantly absent from other Marvel ladies. Bautista has become a great character actor as well. He’s a smart guy with good timing. With his extensive child and adult film resume Kurt Russell is perfectly cast as Pratt’s father. Their personalities lend to some good chemistry.

James Gunn owns the Guardians films. No one else can capture his blend of humor and pop culture salutes. Yet, he overreaches a little trying to incorporate so much story and so many gags into one film. His vision is well defined, though.

Plus, Gunn stages another dance scene for Pratt and Saldana, and it’s great. As I noted in my Vol 1 review, that’s how you get to a viewer’s heart. Everyone loves to dance.

As well, Gunn accompanied his sequences with some tunes both fresh and familiar from Fleetwood Mac, Electric Light Orchestra and George Harrison to name a few.

James Gunn was always going to make sure never to take his films seriously. So, when you see a baby tree groove along while trying to detonate a bomb, I defy you to be so serious as well.

ANT-MAN

By Marc S. Sanders

Peyton Reed not only capitalizes on Edgar Wright’s interpretation of Marvel’s Ant-Man, but also on the first chapter of the MCU, Iron Man. The similarities in the two films are so familiar that Ant-Man seems a little boring and redundant. You’ll turn to your seat mate midway through and say “We’ve seen this.”

Nevertheless, Reed’s film is saved thanks to a likable Paul Rudd, a welcome Michael Douglas and a scene stealing Michael Pena. Evangeline Lilly is here but she’s as useful as Gwenyth Paltrow has been. Corey Stoll is the bald villain, like Jeff Bridges before him, and well… LOOK!!! You just needed to find someone to be the villain; the guy interested in stealing technology to use for making a lot of money and other nefarious purposes. You’ve seen it all before.

Pena is given the best stuff to do as Reed takes advantage of visually recounting a “telephone game” story of what he and then what she said and then what he said after that. Michael Pena is a really funny guy who deserves more work. He’ll likely get a lead in an ABC family sitcom one day called Pena or Michael!, let’s say.

Rudd has fun with the stupidity of his superhero name and abilities. Let’s face it. Controlling the minds of ants is not as flashy as Batman and his gadgets or Spider-Man web slinging through the city. Rudd smirks through all of it. So, I felt okay to smirk as well.

The film suffers from a lot of exposition and a few too many characters. In a flashback 80s scene, Douglas’ character (the original Ant-Man) breaks some SHIELD agent’s nose. What’s so special or offensive about this guy? I don’t know. Also, Bobby Cannavale is a pain in the ass cop for Rudd to deal with, but more or less you’d have the same film if he was excised from the final cut.

Reed saves his movie with a really fun ending consisting of a battle involving shrinking and enlarging and shrinking again aboard a Thomas The Train Engine toy playset. It’s Rudd as Ant-Man vs Stoll as Yellowjacket (very cool looking and not used enough). As well, you can’t help but smile when you see a fifty foot high toy train crash through a house.

This is a scrappy little film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and not much seems original, but you got a cast that’s likable and an ending to be entertained by.

Nothing special, but nothing terrible either.