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Is there a more instantly iconic cast in Hollywood?

I am pleased to report that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (I’ll refer to it simply as Vol. 2) is, as many of you have found out for yourselves over the past week, every bit as good and in some ways much better than even the first one. Vol. 1 was a great surprise and still the boldest movie Marvel has yet made. Vol. 2 doubles down on the world it created and the characters that inhabit it, losing the freshness a little (which is being overstated as a complaint) but managing to improve on those few significant weak spots the first one did have.

One of those is the way certain characters were shorted much of an arc as the plot took over the movie. In Vol. 2 this never happens and no character, and there are so fucking many of them, gets shorted. They all have satisfying arcs, even Kraglin (Sean Gunn), wisely depending on interactions with each other. For people who like Marvel movies and fans of The Fast and the Furious franchise, this will feel familiar. It’s in pairings, parallels and polar opposites, that juggling so many characters and arcs becomes possible. Vol. 2 pulls this off with aplomb and manages to weave through tonal shifts, some of which are pretty shocking and risky. A stronger commitment to the sadness and loss hinted at in Vol. 1 is also demonstrated here, giving this goofy space movie an emotional core that is hard to find even in serious dramas. If I could compare that to something, it’d be a Pixar movie, where they definitely understand that the juxtaposition of light heartedness, humour, and fun against deeper, darker, and unresolved feelings provides a strong base for engaging drama and characterization. Not only this, but James Gunn managed to infuse this one with some pretty heavy existential and philosophical weight, which I’ll get to later on. I didn’t expect that.

All the way back when testing revealed that Vol. 2 was the MCU’s first movie that scored 100s (whatever that means), the hype has been real. There’s already a pretty misguided mini-backlash against this movie, fixated on gags that don’t quite land or the way the second act dismisses the overarching plot in favor of briefly becoming a shaggy hangout movie, but this stuff seems nitpicky to me. At the same time, I totally understand just how hard it is to deal with a movie as anticipated and hyped up as this one was. Your mind always wants to find that one thing wrong with it, so I take these nitpicks as a great sign personally. If the worst someone can say is that the space fruit ripeness joke feels a little forced then this is one helluva movie, right? It so is. Read the rest of this entry »

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This.

I spent like 5 hours yesterday writing about this movie. Did two complete drafts of the review as my first go around felt unsatisfying and overly focused on the reception of Age of Ultron as opposed to being about the movie itself. I was much happier with my second, 4000-word review and I will do my best to make this third attempt as good, but if it feels a bit half-hearted just know that it’s because of the heartbreak of losing 5 hours of work and not because the movie sucked. Age of Ultron did not suck.

To me, Age of Ultron is the biggest movie of 2015. And I don’t just mean the most exciting or something. It is a massive, massive movie. Plenty going on, many characters, and so on. But yeah, it’s also the one I was most excited for (sorry Star Wars, but I’ve been hurt before). Some have said you don’t need to see the other Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to follow this, but I think you really do. At this point, you either like what these guys are doing and you’re okay with the superhero monolith… or you’re not. In many ways, Joss Whedon relies on our familiarity and our investment to navigate an incredibly tangled web of characterizations, sub-plots, and even missing pieces cut from what was once a three hour long movie.

The two hour movie that remains is fast, relentless, and full of amazing moments. Because the concept of giant, shared universe superhero team-ups is now familiar as well, Age of Ultron quickly acknowledges our affection for that before moving on to something else. This is a movie about how things change, and how we are often the architects of the pain those changes bring. It’s easy for an identifiable theme to get lost in the shuffle of a movie this big, but every character gets a subplot and arc of their own which will lead them into their continued solo adventures.

If there are weaknesses in Age of Ultron, they are likely the result of cuts. You still have to lay this at the feet of Whedon, since as director he’s the most directly responsible. At the same time, you can forgive hard sacrifices that get made for a movie as impossible as Age of Ultron to even exist. So for the most part, an avowed fan like me can overlook some rough patches (but I’m still going to discuss them with you). This is a movie that knows what you want to see and is more than happy to give that to you and then some. The hype machine being what it is, some people are always going to be satisfied or ambivalent and I suggest to you that Age of Ultron deserves better. It could never be as surprising and novel as The Avengers was three years ago, but its highs are just as high and it never hits the low points (mostly in the first twenty minutes) of its predecessor. It’s entirely a success.

THERE ARE NO STRINGS, BUT PLENTY OF SPOILERS

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Thor is still ultimately about these two fellas.

A little over two years ago, I wrote a positive review for Thor fueled mostly by very pleasant surprise that they dared so much, let alone accomplished anything by it. Thor is probably one of the weaker stand-alone Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films, but it was elevated by one of the better casts and a functional emotional story of a type for which I have a confirmed soft spot. What held it back was its smallness, its breeziness, and a certain lack of conviction that kept it from fully owning its cosmic scale.

Thor: The Dark World succeeds its predecessor in every way it faltered. Not only a bigger and better film in terms of spectacle, it maintains the emotional narrative and strong sense of familial drama that drove the first film and has helped make Loki (Tom Hiddleston) the best Marvel villain and one of the greatest film baddies of this era. Rather than breaking from its lesser roots, The Dark World returns to them and builds on them, crafting a science-fiction fantasy film that is the envy of all other science fiction fantasy films (though there aren’t many of them) since probably the last good Star Wars. It is so audaciously, apologetically a movie of ridiculously huge ideas and creatures and characters, that anyone who grew up on Final Fantasy and Masters of the Universe, let alone the comics, will feel like it was made for them.

There’s also that it’s one of the funniest, funnest movies of 2013. Thor: The Dark World in no way felt like a movie that should be as out-and-out entertaining as it is, going in, but I laughed my ass off. It may even be funnier than The Avengers. One might have fairly expected a greater degree of verisimilitude with Alan Taylor directing (he did a lot with limited resources on Game of Thrones) but I don’t know that anyone expected him to have such a sharp ear for the comedic inside the dramatic, or the cosmic. I would not have envied the job of trying to make some of the stuff in The Dark World work on the straight, let alone trying to make it amusing without undermining it. Here, that is the accomplishment. It also paves the way for the crazier, bigger world of the MCU’s next phase of development, a world wherein we’ll be connecting the grounded (ish) realities of the Phase 1 films and The Avengers with things like talking trees, Space Jim Jarmusch, and fucking Rocket Raccoon. Because yes, sportsfans, part of Thor: The Dark World‘s purpose is to prepare audiences for that big step upward and outward, to a place where we can receive Guardians of the Galaxy with only the good kind of head-scratching.

The Marvel films make it an exciting time for moviegoers and superhero fans. Thor: The Dark World makes it an exciting time for fantasy fans, and even the ones who don’t care about Thor or Marvel should really give this a look.

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Which is really the hero?

I think Iron Man 3 is only slightly less ballsy than The Avengers. It’s another of Marvel’s growing crop of “they really fucking made this? they really fucking made this!” movies. This is not to say that it doesn’t have problems or that it’s going to be a crowd-pleaser the way The Avengers was. You really can’t fault Marvel for a lack of boldness, though. If nothing else Iron Man 3 is really trying (and I think succeeding) in shaking things up and turning expectations upside down. It also wants to be a serious psychological exploration of character and on this front, credit goes to the allowances given to Shane Black to really make this movie his.

A lot of peoples’ enjoyment of this movie is going to rest on whether or not they get its broader context. Even broader than that it’s a Marvel movie. Or a superhero movie, for that matter. It doesn’t always feel like one, after all.

Because this is a Shane Black movie through and through (Christmas setting, introspective voice-over, snappy dialogue, funny and realized henchmen, monologuing Bond villain, etc), it will definitely help calibrate the reception of its sprawling tone and loose arrangement of Jungian psychological metaphor if you know your Shane Black. Even people who only ever saw the seminal Kiss Kiss Bang Bang will feel something familiar about Iron Man 3 that goes beyond the inclusion of Robert Downey Jr.

Marvel knows we’re living in what I called the post-Avengers world. Both in the film, where things are somewhat darker and more personal (seems this is being extended to other Phase 2 films given Thor 2‘s trailer), and outside of it. They are not trying to emulate the gangbusters approach they (and Joss Whedon) took to The Avengers. Rather, this is about scaling things back and dealing with the aftermath of a world-shattering event. This just feels right. I don’t know how else you could describe it.

But lets get back to the movie.

SPOILERS ACTIVATE! Read the rest of this entry »

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