Spider-Man Far From Home

I guess I am just not as much of a Spider-Man fan as most people. I like the character well enough, but I didn’t gush over Homecoming like a lot of people did, and I certainly didn’t feel as strong about Into the Spider-Verse as many people. I enjoyed both movies, but I’d be lying if I said they had really stuck in my mind past a week or so. I think I feel the same way about Spider-Man: Far From Home. I liked it well enough; it is a solid entry in the ongoing Marvel saga. It is a coda to the story that wrapped up with Endgame, a movie that furthers Spider-Man’s adventures while dealing somewhat with the aftermath of the big movie.

One thing that is excellent is Tom Holland as Spider-Man. He does a great job of selling him as a teenager trying to do the right thing while being somewhat in over his head. His classmates are all really fun as well. Zendaya’s reveal as being MJ at the end of the last movie was groan inducing, but she is just about perfect as his love interest and eventual ally here. (To be clear: I did not like the end of movie call me MJ moment; Zendaya is great. It is the same problem as with The Dark Knight Rises’ Robin bit at the end. Don’t do that crap; just have the character be the character the whole movie.) Jake Gyllenhal mostly makes Mysterio work, though he remains kind of an empty shell of a character at the end, with his motives and personality largely just gaps that were never filled in.

One thing I haven’t liked with the current iteration of Spider-Man is making him Iron Man’s side-kick. Which is exactly what he has been in every MCU movie so far. The dynamic works well enough; I think DC should take notes for their next Batman movie and any attempt to integrate Robin. But to me it takes away from Spider-Man some. The fact that he is on his own is part of the appeal. Sure, in the comics he gets help from various sources, like the Fantastic Four, but the fact that he was the young hero that was not a side-kick always seemed to me to be a key element of his popularity.

Far From Home pushes Spider-Man’s limits. The first movie was all about Peter accepting his role as the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man; this movie pushes him immediately out of that neighborhood. The world has changed since he fought Vulture and Peter has to change with it. I just don’t know that this movie really works on the macro level. Him dealing with the legacy of Tony Stark doesn’t really feel like Peter’s responsibility. It only happens because Tony was apparently a mad man, creating tons of weaponized drones with few safety features. Nick Fury and the agents formerly known as SHIELD are so out of place I thought they were part of Mysterio’s illusion.

Stronger are the parts that deal with Peter’s personal life. His struggles to admit his feelings for MJ and his struggles with keeping his identity secret are both great Spider-Man stuff. That is what I wanted to see more of.

My complaints from a few years ago about MCU movies being all polish and not substance kind of went away for a bit, but that is exactly what this movie feels like. It feels polished to the point where it loses a lot of its personality. I don’t hate, I liked it, but it feels a lot like one of those MCU movies that people are going to forget exists in a few years, only coming up when someone throws is smack dab in the middle of Marvel movie ranking. Bring on the next phase.

***1/2

Black Panther

While I wouldn’t call any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies bad, I think the quality slipped in recent years. 2014 saw the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, two of the best movies they have released. Since then, though, Marvel has not exactly struggled, but I would call the next half dozen movies middle of the road output for them. There is a certain level of polish that all of their movies have that never left, but none of those movies really stuck with me. Last Falls Thor Ragnarok pushed things to a new level, finally giving Chris Hemsworth a movie fully worthy of his God of Thunder. With Black Panther, Marvel may be at the start of a trend. Black Panther stands with the very best superhero movies ever made.

The Thor movies are a good reference for Black Panther, because they are doing a lot of the same things. Black Panther does them successfully the first time. The Thor movies have a lot to do with the politics of a fantasy land, with a young prince having to determine how he will rule and dealing with a fractured family situation. Black Panther does all these things as well, only it does them better. The political situation of Wakanda is clearer than that of Asgard, as is T’Challa’s struggle compared to Thor’s. The Thor movies, though, focused almost solely on the ruling family and their close allies. Though I liked the first two Thor movies, Ragnarok was the first one that I completely effectively portrayed the family dynamics. Black Panther deals more with state of the nation of Wakanda, though family certainly comes into play.

Black Panther also displays amazing range. A lot of movies have trouble doing one thing well, Black Panther works in at least two modes at a very high level. In Wakanda, T’Challa is caught up in essentially a fantasy epic; the story there shares more with Lord of the Rings than with Iron Man. It is among the most effective fantasy epics ever put to film. But there is also a detour to South Korea to play out a mini-spy thriller; the movie turns into a James Bond movie for thirty minutes. What is most amazing that it manages to weld these two concepts together almost flawlessly. The various parts of the movie support each other. The Seoul sequence lets T’Challa see his policies in action, letting him be more sure or less, as the case may be, of his actions when he returns to Wakanda. It creates a movie that feels remarkable assured of itself.

That is not even going into the wealth of interesting characters the movie introduces. Somehow Coogler creates the best, most nuanced villain in a Marvel movie with a character named Killmonger. Another highlight is Shuri, T’Challa’s super-genius sister. Or M’Baku, leader of rival Wakandan tribe who challenges Black Panther. All of these characters come from the comics, but the movie does an amazing job of adapting the into a cohesive story.

There are other ways in which Black Panther is a complete triumph that I am not really capable of or inclined to weigh in on, though I do feel compelled to acknowledge their existence. Judging it solely on how successful it is compared to other Marvel movies, or other superhero movies in general, or among all blockbuster movies, Black Panther stands near the top. This is one of the best.

*****

Spider-Man Homecoming

This is going to end up being a fairly negative sounding review. I know that as I start to write it, because while I came out of Spider-Man Homecoming having enjoyed it the more I thought about it as started to write this review the more it seemed to fall apart.  Spider-Man Homecoming is not a bad film.  It has that slickly produced Disney/Marvel sheen, solid performances from its starring trio and a lot of good ideas in its foundation.  The movie also fails to build up to anything or follow through on any of its thematic ideas.

It starts with Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes having his clean up job taken by company owned by Stark in the wake of the first Avenger’s movie.  Upset about losing his job to the person who made the mess, Toomes and his employees keep some of the alien salvage they already had and try to figure out how it works. Starting with this is a smart move, doing for an origin story for the villain rather than the hero.  We don’t need to Spider-Man’s origin again.  Unfortunately, after the set up the movie gives the viewer precious little about Toomes, who becomes the Vulture. It makes him rather sympathetic, except when he suddenly decided he’s okay with killing people.

After the opening the film focuses on Peter and his desire, after helping out in Civil War, to join the Avengers.  He uses the supersuit that Iron Man gave him and solves local crimes while being ignored by Iron Man, who has pawned him off on Happy Hogan who also ignores him. I don’t really get the arc they were trying to give Peter in this movie. The lesson, I guess, is that he needs to focus more on living his life than joining the Avengers, but his actions in the movie don’t reflect him ever learning that lesson.  He does the same thing the whole time and other than this movie making him shitty at being a superhero he seems to be trying to do the right thing.  His experiences don’t lead up to any change, though the movie makes one happen at the end anyway.

That is my big problem with the movie.  It starts with some good ideas and ends in places those ideas could have lead, but the movie in between doesn’t actually connect them.  This is in spite of solid performances by Keaton, Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Holland.  It is fun to spend time with these characters, I just wish I could do so in a better movie.  Peter fails as a hero, but suffers no consequence and learns no lessons.  Iron Man, and/trough Happy, tells him stay small and close to home while focusing on his schooling, but the movie doesn’t show him do that.  He bails on his class mates and they aren’t particularly bothered by it.  And the action scene escalate while Spider-Man does a better job handling them.  He succeeds at what he was told not to do and that somehow teaches him not to do it.

The school stuff is fun, but it is also very undercooked.  The videos of the school news team and Captain America PSA’s are the best part of the movie, hands down.  While it sets up some John Hughes like high school drama, the movie never really does anything with it.  It is a good idea that is handled in an unsatisfying way.  The worst part is a stupid line at the end for one of the characters that left me flabbergasted at what they were going for.

Spider-Man Homecoming is pleasant to watch. That is more than enough to buoy the viewer while watching it.  Upon reflection it is a jumble of ideas that don’t coalesce into a real story and the spectacle is never really that spectacular, though that last part might be the fault of the too dark theater I saw it in.  I liked the movie. It is easily the better than the two Amazing Spider-Man movies.  Unfortunately for Homecoming, this year has been a very good year for superhero movies and with Logan and Wonder Woman in recent memory, it is hard to get excited for a film that is merely okay.

***1/2

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 Review

The first Guardians of the Galaxy is one of my favorite Marvel movies in large part for how different it is from the rest of them.  There are definitely certain beats that it hits that are similar, but it is not just the same origin story we’ve seen a dozen times now.  Its combination of action, humor and music made for an perfect theater going experience and James Gunn voice was apparent throughout. Its sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, doubles down on the things that made the first movie great.  Instead of trying to go bigger than its predecessor, it digs in deeper with its characters to make an unusual and wonderful sequel.

I won’t deny that Guardians 2 gets kind of messy at times.  There is plenty of convenience in the plot and characters have a habit of just flat out saying the themes in dialogue, tt splits the cast up into several smaller groups for most of the movie, limiting their ability to play off each other, and the final fight scene gets a little incoherent for stretches.  None of that did much to lessen my enjoyment of the movie.  

The plot involves giving the team exactly what they want, from Star-Lord meeting his dad to Rocket managing to push everyone away.  But like in nearly all fiction, maybe the things they wanted are not what they needed.  So obviously, things go awry.  That is true for returning supporting characters as well.  Nebula plays a big role again, with her allegiance shifting from being a villain to something more like a nemesis. Yondu, also sees a bigger role and reveals his true colors as the movie goes along.  At the end, you really feel like you know these characters better than you did before.

The balance between characters isn’t perfect.  Drax has little to do besides be nearly perfect comic relief and Rocket gets largely sidelined after the midpoint.  New character Mantis’s role is small and very little about her is revealed.  The movie also continues Marvel’s villain problem, with this movies bad guy ceasing to be interesting at all once his villainy is revealed.  I don’t know that these are really problems. The movie is stuffed as it is, I don’t really see how much more they could have done with Rocket or Drax or Mantis without adding significantly to the movie.  

The soundtrack, a big part of the first movies charm, is maybe even better here.  This movie features some deeper cuts, and a does a little more work to call attention to itself, but it all works in context.  It also retains the humor from the first movie.  My two biggest complaints are about jokes that just absolutely didn’t land for me, but those are small problems in the deluge of moments that did work.

It also, to my complete delight, further embraces the acid trip weirdness of Marvel’s cosmic characters.  We actually see the face on Ego The Living Planet. Yondu gets his full mohawk.  It is just overall more willing to get weird with things, and that is what I love about comic books.  I am glad to see them be rewarded for embracing this stuff rather than trying to sand it off.  We’ve come a long way from the X-Men refusing to wear yellow in their first movie.

Maybe I am still just riding a sugar rush after watching this movie, but I loved it unreservedly. I haven’t really felt that way about one of these since the previous Guardians of the Galaxy, I guess.  In some ways it is the perfect example of more of the same, in others is wonderfully different.  I liked all of it.

****1/2

The Avengers Review

The Avengers is something of a unique phenomenon; a big budget, super-hyped blockbuster that is actually as good as the advertising campaign wants you to believe it is. It isn’t perfect, but it is amazing how close to perfection The Avengers came. Especially considering how many things could have and possibly should have gone wrong. For the most part, The Avengers is superb, the only flaws being a somewhat weak, impersonal 3rd act and some unresolved clashes between characters. Those flaws pale in comparison of how much the movie flat out gets right. Especially with the personalities of all the team members. The Avengers is definitely the best movie that Marvel Studios has put out and rivals the Dark Knight for best superhero film to grace the screen.

What really shines in the Avengers are the characters, from the glib Iron Man to the disaffected Black Widow. It helps that they are played by a host of stars or budding star. Best of all is Mark Ruffalo as Hulk, who steals nearly every scene he is in. He plays the on edge Banner with the perfect nerdy awkwardness. Joss Whedon does a great job balancing all the characters, giving each a chance to shine, though it does kind of become the Iron Man show near the end. For the first two thirds of the movie Loki does a great job as the villain, perfectly showy and Machiavellian. The fear that it might be trouble for all of these characters, many of which can and have carried a movie on their own, to share the screen was unfounded.

Another great part is the films use of humor. Viewers are expecting action and adventure, and The Avengers has those in spades, but it is also a genuinely funny movie. Whedon seems to have realized that the premise is inherently ridiculous, with super soldiers and extra-dimensional Gods and super powered robot suits, so he just has fun with it. Anytime it feels like the movie is getting too heavy, if things are too serious, there is a moment of levity or a jokey line. The Avengers invites viewers to have fun. I am not saying it is a movie that requires the viewer to “turn their brain off,” as some action movies seem to do (coughTransformerschough). It knows the premise is out there, so it uses humor to pull the viewer in, while not losing the humanity or reality of the characters themselves. The humor is what sets The Avengers above most action fare.

The big flaw with the movie is the final act. Until the (spoilers) aliens attack, the movie is great, but the aliens themselves lack personality. There is no reason to care about the aliens, any reason to want to see the Avengers defeat them. They are just a faceless horde. After a fight with Thor, Loki disappears as well. It is fun to see the team take out the aliens, but there is no dramatic weight to it. Then the ending happens just because the script calls for. As good as the few heroes are doing, you would think they would try to send in some soldiers to fight the invaders rather than jumping straight to the nuke, but no, nuke it is. As soon as the gate opens, the viewer knows that the good guys are going to have to close it, but going on the word of Loki that it can’t be closed they leave it alone until it is time for the movie to end. Also, why do the aliens all die when their ship is destroyed? For the first part of the movie there is plenty of heart beneath the spectacle, but at the end it is just spectacle.

Still, I really liked the movie. I continue to look forward to Marvel Studios offerings, especially Thor 2, because Thor is the best. But I hope that the next Avengers movie will fix the flaws with this one, slight as they might be. The teaser at the end of this one reveals a foe that could actually challenge the Avengers now that the team is formed. Even though this movie limps to the end, the first half is good enough to sustain good feelings past the end of the movie. The Avengers is really, really good.