Deadpool 2 (2018)

Deadpool 2 (2018) movie poster

director David Leitch
viewed: 05/27/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Deadpool 2 is the lesser Deadpool of the Deadpool movies. I’d commented about its predecessor that I didn’t think that the movie was as clever as it thought itself. That’s even more true here in the sequel.

Ryan Reynolds and just about everybody from the first film is back, along with Josh Brolin as Cable, Zazie Beetz as Domino, and surprisingly Julian Dennison (from Hunt for the Wilderpeople) as Russell/Firefist. Oh yeah, and all those guys in X-Force.

Knowing jokes about lazy writing don’t make lazy writing okay. They pack in the gags, cultural references, and R-rated raunchiness into a story that also tries to have a heart. That having a heart thing is the mushy muddle that undercuts a lot of the film’s potential irreverence making it much more like the things it attempts to lampoon.

Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther (2018) movie poster

director Ryan Coogler
viewed: 02/25/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

“A kid from Oakland walking around and believing in fairy tales.” This may describe writer/director Ryan Coogler as a kid, though these are the words he gave N’Jadaka to say about his childhood fantasies of Wakanda. But it also may describe many children to come, having been instilled with a fairy tale to which they can relate, Marvel’s superhero Black Panther.

Black Panther is a superhero movie like no other, none especially of the current Marvel Cinematic Universe. As much as Disney and Marvel have allowed directors to add their character and tonality to the movies and franchises that they’ve crafted, Coogler has gone leaps beyond that and has made something not just personal but ideological, creating a world within Marvel’s universe of an idealized, though flawed, politicized metaphor and heroic figures very different from the norm of typical cultural and ethnic diversity of their fleet of characters.

No other Marvel enterprise has striven to be anything more than entertainment. Coogler has given the world something much more rare and still developing in its significance. He has deeply imbued Black Panther with a cultural awareness of not just African-American identity but identity within the whole of the African diaspora. Coogler also offers a healthier image of feminist identity in superhero garb than even one single frame of Wonder Woman.

When the film opened in Coogler’s hometown of Oakland, local reporter and native Bay Area son, Peter Hartlaub, was on scene at the Grand Lake Theater to witness not just the latest blockbuster, but a cultural happening, one that Coogler himself parachuted in for at the last minute, surprising movie-goers.

All this is not  to say that Black Panther is wholly successful even as the genre film it is. Some of the plot elements are stronger while some are more shaky. The same could be said for some of the visual design and digital effects. As interesting a conflict as arises out of  N’Jadaka’s resentment toward T’Challa and Wakanda, I didn’t feel that Michael B. Jordan’s character was as well-developed as he could have been.

But Black Panther is going to be so much more than its shortcomings.

And at the end of the day, I’ll take as much Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Angela Bassett, and Leticia Wright (my favorite of the film), as Coogler will give us.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) movie poster

director  Taika Waititi
viewed: 11/26/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I’m with the consensus on this one. My kids are too.

Thor: Ragnarok is fun, funny entertainment. Total props to Taika Waititi for this one.

I’ve always liked Cate Blanchett, but goth Cate Blanchett! What you do to me!

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) movie poster

director Jon Watts
viewed: 07/16/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My kids got back from camp for a brief weekend before other summer travels and I posed to them the idea of seeing a movie. Either Spider-Man: Homecoming or War for the Planet of the Apes. Surprisingly, they agreed on Spider-Man (they never agree on anything), and so Spider-Man it was.

I didn’t have high expectations, despite having liked Tom Holland’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War, was it?

Color me surprised. This is probably the second best Spider-Man movie, next to Spider-Man 2 (2004).

They dialed it back down a lot here, letting Spider-Man fight a more localized villain in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. He’s scavenging and stealing alien technology from government clean-up sites and selling the weaponry to small-time crooks. More like old-fashioned Spider-Man comics, the story is more concise and less existential in its threats. Peter Parker is believably a teen (though maybe barely) and the cast around him, particularly Jacob Batalon as his chubby, funny pal and Zendaya shows promise as the next film’s “MJ”.

It’s funny throughout. I particularly liked the Captain America PSA’s.

It’s not great film-making, but it’s more fun than it seems, and then you start to realize that the bar isn’t all that high for Spider-Man movies. It still has other issues and short-comings, but we all enjoyed it, and that is not a common enough result of a movie these days.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) movie poster

director James Gunn
viewed: 05/06/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

In 2014, James Gunn performed a magic trick, turning an obscure Marvel Comics entity into a major Marvel Studios franchise in Guardians of the Galaxy. Shareholders and fans thrilled.

No longer obscure, but rather hotly anticipated (by my 13 year old daughter among many), Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 comes shooting out of the gate of summer fare 2017. Like any sequel, more is more, when it comes to the stuff that fans loved the first time: comic banter, AM radio tunes, stunning sci-fi visuals, and baby Groot.

But as is also common in sequels, more is not always more.

Guardians 2 is more, 136 minutes more.

The real flaw though is in the script. It’s nowhere as sharp and funny as it should be. And then the whole “daddy” or “family” issues theme. It’s heavy handed. It’s cliché as cliché  can be and super-tiresome. And here it really sucks the life out of the movie.

Favorite elements: David Bautista as Drax gets the best lines and moments, nicely paired with opposing counterpart in Pom Klementieff as Mantis. And most of the visual design and character designs are stunning and super-fun.

Least favorite element: Bradley Cooper’s Rocket.

Coming out of the movie, my son was unsurprisingly unimpressed. My daughter was not nearly as enthusiastic as I would have thought, considering she laughed through much of it.

I don’t know if all of the fans will be happy, but I’m pretty sure the shareholders will be.

Logan (2017)

Logan (2017) movie poster

director James Mangold
viewed: 03/05/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My daughter was very excited to see that Logan was to be released on her 13th birthday. And for her birthday, I took her and a couple of her friends to see Logan. It’s a small sample size, but based on my experience, 13 year old girls LOVE Logan. It even brought tears to their eyes.

Surprisingly violent and successfully gritty, Logan takes the Wolverine character as played by Hugh Jackman into the future, the year 2029, where Logan is ailing from blood poisoning, alcoholism, and the bitter, brutal events that led up to the elimination of all mutants. It’s only him and Caliban (Stephan Merchant) left, caring for the very ill Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).

That is until his clone daughter, Laura (Dafne Keen) shows up. She’s like him, with those claws, and when she’s unleashed, she’s a killing machine.

The story then turns to a run for the Canadian border, to some safe haven for Laura and her test tube mutant brethren. There is an amazing poignancy in this, with the current state of affairs and the plight of immigrants in the United States at the moment.

The film has some political commentary, but really it’s a character-driven film, with a lot of brutal dismemberment, slicing and dicing. And for my money, not just the 13 year olds in our party, it works well. Jackman and Stewart and Keen derive their pathos.

It’s a superhero film stripped of costumes and magic, humanized, or at least de-superhero-ized. Easily the best film in the series.

Man-Thing (2005)

Man-Thing (2005) movie poster

director Brett Leonard
viewed: 03/02/2017

In researching some other Marvel Comics movie thing, I stumbled on the fact that there was a Man-Thing movie, made in 2005. I follow along pretty well and have kept tabs on how Marvel has evolved its own productions, but I really hadn’t heard at all about this movie. Reading up now on it, it’s not surprising.

Produced by Artisan Entertainment, who had also made that era’s The Punisher (2004), and worked out a deal to license some of Marvel’s more minor characters (before Marvel realized that running the quality control was the key to success), Man-Thing was an Australian production, not keenly over-seen by the parent company, and was not released theatrically in the US.

For me, Man-Thing always held a point of fascination, possibly because it started as a comic book in 1974, when I was 5 and growing up in Florida, land of swamps. I always loved monsters. Especially sympathetic things that looked cool.

It might surprise you to know that the cinematic Man-Thing is a horror film, not at all a superhero movie. But it probably wouldn’t surprise you just how bad this movie is.

Australians may be good at a lot of things, but sounding like Cajuns and Creoles is not one of them. Throw in a lot of cheap camera effects that make this look like a SciFi Channel original of the era (it was released as such eventually), and you’ve got a big hunk of junk.

On the positive side, it’s R-rated so an a-typical flash of boobs tells you early on that this isn’t your run-of-the-mill Marvel outing. But even as a horror film it’s pretty terrible. And the creature itself, originally meant to be a physical costume enhanced by CGi, winds up being cheap CGi circa 2005, which is a sad fate for any character and far from interesting or terrifying.

But is it bad enough to be good? I’d say it’s close, but I don’t think it achieves even this rather low point of success. Perhaps it deserves its relative obscurity.

Doctor Strange (2016)

Doctor Strange (2016) movie poster

director Scott Derrickson
viewed: 11/05/2016 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I actually had to drag my 15 year old son to Doctor Strange.  He’s in full-on revolt against superhero movies.  My daughter, who has been pretty into the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, was a lot easier to convince.  It’s been a dry autumn for movies, so I was more willing than normal to go see the latest superhero fare.

I never had a relationship with Dr. Strange other than to think he was not really my superhero cup of tea.  As a kid I thought he was pretty lame and wasn’t into weird mysticism in my comic books.  As a result, I came to this one rather open-mindedly.

Doctor Strange features an origin story, which is just fine here.  Unlike Superman or Spiderman, whose origin stories we’ve seen dozens of times, it’s worth getting the backstory here.  Benedict Cumberbatch plays the good, if arrogant neurosurgeon, who suffers a horrific crash and nerve damage to his hands, heads to the East (Kathmandu exactly) to find a mystical healing but instead finds magic and expanded realities and superpowers and lots of stuff.

The cast carries this along quite well with Cumberbatch, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, and Benedict Wong.  There was some criticism of whitewashing with Swinton playing a character who in the comics was Asian.  Not familiar with the comics, I don’t know what to say here.  She’s one of those cinematic aliens who is also a very fine actress.

Really, what struck me was that Doctor Strange is sort of the head-trippy Inception (2010) of the Marvel Universe.  Remember all that city folding on itself stuff?  Well what if they did that to the Nth degree non-stop?  Actually my favorite scene was Strange’s immersion into the psychedelic reality of multiverses and uber-reality.

It was fun.  And as Marvel is wont to do, post-credit scenes suggest that we’ll be seeing the magic doctor in the next Thor movie.  The Marvel machine rolls on.

My son was unimpressed.  My daughter liked it.  Dad can’t win.

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 06/04/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The X-Men movies keep surprising me.  Rising from the ashes of The Last Stand (2006), the re-booted franchise that kicked off with Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class (2011) and renewed yet again by Bryan Singer’s surprising return to the franchise that he first brought to the screen in 2000, in X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), this (currently) 2nd trilogy has managed despite odds and levels of narrative complexity, turned out some really decent movies.

Not great movies, mind you, but good movies.  Entertainment.

This series took on the added challenge of a reworked timeline, setting the films in the past:  First Class in the 1960’s, Days of Future Past in the 1970’s (as well as in the present?), and now Apocaplypse in 1983.  Frankly, even trying to get my head around the whole timeline thing is more than I care to strain for myself.

But I think I know why this works, at least to some extent.  The X-Men were always a more interesting crew than Marvel stablemates, The Avengers.  The Avengers were always sort of Marvel’s mainstream, while the X-men were sort of their “alternative culture”.  And ultimately are a more interesting gang of characters.

It’s 144 minutes of mind and butt-numbing action, so incredibly much packed in to this sprawling cataclysmic story.  An almost all-powerful villain Apocalypse (a heavily CGI & make-up-buried Oscar Isaac) rises from nearly 6,000 years of slumber to re-boot the Earth.  It takes all of the X-men to come together to take him and his associates down.

I often think that one shortcoming of the modern superhero story is that every villain is an existential one, every one is bringing an apocalypse to Earth (or even the universe) and the heroes have to “save the world”.  Old school comics had heroes and villains on smaller scale stories that were still compelling.

This story isn’t quite so complicated unless you’re trying to tie it into the prior movie’s narrative (which was complicated and is essentially extended here with the action taking place a decade later — almost 20 years since First Class).

For its broad spectrum of response (seriously “mixed” reviews), Apocalypse hardly seemed like a sure thing.  When I told my superhero-loving 12 year old daughter we were going to it, she said, “Yusss!”  And when I found myself walking out of the movie thinking, “Gee, I really kind of liked that…”   I started realizing that despite the fact that I stopped reading superhero comics around 1983, that I guess the X-men were the ones I liked, far more than a lot of the others.

Lastly, quite as in Days of Future Past, the film’s singular best sequence features Evan Peters as Quicksilver, saving the day in a prolonged time-stretched action scene, here saving the whole Xavier school’s populace from an explosion.  Talk about a character crying out for his own movie.  It’s kind of clear that Singer has made the case for him, perhaps made the case that Singer should make it himself.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America: Civil War (2016) movie poster

directors Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
viewed: 05/07/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My 14 year old son is boycotting all superhero movies at present, but my 12 year old daughter is over the moon about them, in particular those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Myself, I’m somewhere between those polar opposites.  But as a good dad, of course I took my daughter to see Marvel’s latest.

Ostensibly a Captain America movie, this one has even more characters in it than the last Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015).  They couldn’t even find space for Spider-Man and Ant-Man on the poster.  There’s only so much room in a $250 million/147 minute flick.

Anthony & Joe Russo return as directors, following Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) in the ongoing saga of…Jeez, I can hardly even remember what that one was about.  The upshot in this one is that after all the destruction brought about in defending the Earth against the likes of Loki and Ultron, people of many nations want to see superheroes managed by the United Nations, rather than acting as free agents.  Willingness to comply with this ultimatum breaks up the good guys into an us vs. them “civil war”.  Add to that mix that old Bucky, the Winter Soldier, is framed for a crime against the U.N. and everybody finds themselves either on Team Stark (pro-registration) or Team Cap (pro-independence).

I’m not exactly sure what the messaging is meant to be here.  Do we want privatized superheroing or do we want the government to control the resources?  Which is right?  Well, it seems that for the time being, the government is looking all corruptible and so therefore we have to trust the incorruptibility of our heroes.  I’m not sure what that suggests?  Smaller government?  Is this a conservative vehicle?

The film’s biggest coup is snagging Spider-Man 3.0 star Tom Holland, currently still a teenager playing a Spider-Man whose voice hasn’t completely broken.  Promising though it is for the next installment of that franchise, his screen time is probably more promise than delivery.

Overall, I found it an entertaining enough movie.  It could hardly be more jam-packed.

My daughter really liked it.  She and her pals are totally into this stuff right now, and though I don’t dig it on that level, I do appreciate being that age and being into something nerdy in a big way.

The Marvel machine rolls on.  Where it stops…?