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This is Spider-Man.

I once wrote a blog post singing the praises of casting Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He had something I liked for it (one of my very first blog posts, so be gentle) that Tobey Maguire did not. I also really dug the first Amazing Spider-man movie (don’t know what happened to the second one that it was so very bad) and have always been pretty lukewarm about the Sam Raimi trilogy. I think I’ve cooled on TASM and am considering a reappraisal of the Raimi trilogy, but even back when they came out, I liked them but I was never into them. I feel like after five tries, though, it’s kind of reasonable to expect that basically everyone and their uncle understands how to make a decent Spider-man movie. One that will please just about everyone by getting all the most fundamental parts of the character right while changing things up just enough to be fresh and exciting. And so, now we have one.

That may sound like I’m underselling here, and I don’t mean to. Spider-man: Homecoming is a greatly entertaining movie and it has a little bit of depth even though a lot of people are talking about how shallow it is. How formulaic. How Marvel. I have some issues with a few choices they made with the movie and with how muddled its messages are, but I don’t think any of it hampers the enjoyment of the movie itself. I think at most you could say my misgivings are a direct result of the MCU’s usual insistence on playing it safe even when they’ve definitely earned the right to take larger risks. Not so much with big game-changing events like character deaths as I don’t really agree with the people clamoring for that and I’m comfortable with the incremental storytelling the MCU specializes in. More like I think there’s a little too much here that’s on the nose, that shows a lack of trust in the audiences to “get it”. I chose the title quote not only because it’s a good line, but because it is brought in twice and the second time is definitely one of those moments where we don’t need it. It’s this movie’s “with greater power comes greater responsibility” and it’s probably not a great idea to remind the audience how much weaker a statement it really is. To say nothing of the fact that, in the end, the “suit” cake is had and eaten too.

I think if you are one of those folks who is tired of the MCU or superhero movies in general, Homecoming is unlikely to sway you. It’s easy to see many of the exact same problems in it that are well-documented par for course with the franchise overall (less for female characters to do, underdeveloped romance), but it’s also true that Homecoming sidesteps one or two of them (bad villains, clunky greater universe connections). Still, it’s a breezy fun time and it’s delightfully confident even when it sort of stumbles.

FRIENDLY NEIGHBORHOOD SPOILER WARNING

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Wonder how this will turn out?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a hot commodity in the unabashed success that is Marvel’s “Phase 2”. This post-Avengers run of sequels to the flagship solo superhero movies has been a prodigious leap forward in terms of care and quality and The Winter Soldier is no exception. In every way it is bigger, better, more self-assured, and more fun than its predecessor. But because it stays rooted in character, it relies fully on both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Avengers for its weight and impact. Beyond that, The Winter Soldier proves without a doubt that these movies can play with genre conventions without ever flinching away their essential nature as superhero movies. In this way, the Marvel films are following a tradition where superhero stories have always been at their best when they use their fantastic elements to comment on social issues, politics, ideology, and ethics.

All these movies lean in on each other, comment on each other, and strike out in bold new directions. It’s a unique enterprise, something we remind ourselves again and again is the first time anyth project like the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) has ever been attempted. Partly we do this because we’re in awe that this happened at all, that it continues to happen. Partly we do this because these movies keep getting better and keep not letting us move on to a place where the merit of the MCU stagnates or becomes obligatory.

That’s maybe the coolest thing about this movie. Past the scale and the action and even the depth, it’s that it feels like a breath of fresh air. When you think about it, that’s kind of crazy. Not that The Winter Soldier is perfect, mind you, but it perhaps comes the closest (at least technically) of any Marvel film thus far. If anything, it’s only flaw is more of a virtue: it leaves us very much wanting more. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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The word is family.

Something to get out of the way: this series has no naming convention, with each entry reinventing the titling to such a point that I’ll just refer to them with the word “Fast” and numerically by order of release. This will hopefully be a lot less confusing for everybody!

Every Fast and Furious movie echoes a specific movie. With the sixth entry of what has become one of the best original cinematic franchises out there, that movie is The Avengers. It turns out that it’s not only superhero movies that now exist in a post-Avengers world. One of the things I’ve always liked about the Fast series is that it’s been made by filmmakers who dearly love movies. Cohen, Singleton, and then the long (but now complete) run Justin Lin had all have that in common. Though not as much a love letter to The Avengers as the first one was to Point Break, the signs of Lin’s, and writer Chris Morgan’s, appreciation for the most recent blockbuster game-changer is a prevalent and noticeable ingredient in their superhero team-up movie.

We’ve watched all these characters, and the actors who play them, grow up with the franchise. Each Fast movie is, if not better, more self-assured than the last. The commitment to continuity and the themes of its ridiculous universe has always been a major strong suit for the series. It’s surprising every time, especially rewatching the whole shebang, at just how well this thing supports itself.

In Fast 6, everything that makes the series what it is has been dialed up to eleven. Lin is going out with a bang and here proven himself to be one of the highest potential action directors out there. For all that Fast 6 contains the familiar humor, themes of family and redemption, and ridiculous sense of its world, the place where this movie really outdoes itself is in the action. While this has always been an action series, Fast 6 is the first one that features not just one or two great or iconic moments but a dozen of them. Just as the heroics echo The Avengers, the action feels like Lin picking up elements he loves from other movies and floating them through the world of Fast. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but somehow the Bourne-style fisticuffs and Michael Mann gunfights (this is one of the rare movies with loud, realistic gun SFX) are less welded on and more breathed in. The confidence with which Lin includes these touches is breathtaking and makes you completely believe in the action, which in turn ripples through everything else in the movie no matter how ridiculous. Read the rest of this entry »

I look back on 2011’s list and I notice that while feminism was a theme for the movies I liked and included, masculinity was actually a stronger and clearly more resonant (I’m a man after all) theme for the movies I placed highest. Not every year can have a theme, but I’m starting to notice that when one does, it usually comes as some kind of pair.

2012 was the year of great animated films. I’ve always seen animated films and made sure I had room for them, both in theaters and when I write. Animated films are largely an ignored category in film criticism which is a trend that I think is happily starting to change. I included two animated films in my list last year but only one this year. That said, there was simply a higher number of very good animated films this year. Not everybody can be Pixar but it’s now clear that not everybody has to be. Even Disney has competition for the #2 spot (I’d say they lost that spot, but I think I’m in the minority) with Laika or Dreamworks. The crappy thing is that not enough people saw these movies, so I wanted to take some time to mention them here more broadly than any statement that can be made by including them on my Honorable Mentions list.

It may be a bit of a stretch to say that this pairs with animated films but 2012 is also a year of great performances by children. Several of the films on my list are anchored by terrific performances by children of young ages as well as young performers in general. With The Avengers now being one of the most successful films of all time and certainly the greatest actualization of potential for the spectacle film in some years, it seems a solid bet that the energy and lightness of youth has worked its way into the collective consciousness once again. This comes as great news for the culture, I think, which can use a break from easy (if justified) cynicism, apathy, and malaise.

So maybe the theme of 2012 is that hope and optimism are still appropriate, that movies can make good on their potential, that OP can deliver. It’s been a great year for movie lovers of all kinds, with the cream of the crop saying “who give a shit about them?” to every movie that shouldn’t have broken our hearts but did, that should have been a good time but wasn’t. 2012 is the year you got over that abusive asshole you dated and met someone new, someone who restored your faith. It’s a year where the best movies were both smart and fun. It’s the year of big movies that actually kicked ass, of small movies that weren’t ignored, and the year that both the superhero and horror genres were redefined by a guy that many had counted out.

For Joss Whedon fans, 2012 is better than a great year. Read the rest of this entry »

And then this happened.

Warning: There will be spoilers

My version of what everyone is saying about The Avengers is that we’re now living in the post-Avengers world. For over 3 years, everyone knew this was coming. The Avengers is a huger part of the public consciousness than it ever was as a comic and now that the movie has finally arrived, and the big ballsy gamble paid off, it’s going to get even bigger. No joke, The Avengers is hands-down the best Marvel movie yet made and is almost hilariously easily the best superhero movie yet made. This is because Joss Whedon was the right guy, with the right cast, and the right amount of money to create a big blockbuster movie that is a total treat, presenting set-ups and pay-offs not only within its own confines, but dependent on 4 years of Marvel movies and 40 years of Marvel comics.

Just how right is Whedon? It won’t even surprise anybody who’s watched shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and especially Angel that the guy is the world’s leading expert on juggling superhuman egos and powers with humanizing vulnerabilities, attachments, and aspirations. While able to juggle the likes of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor, Whedon shows the potentially unique ability to let each character weave their way in and out of the core narrative, making sure that everyone has their moment in the spot light. And yes, this extends to Black Widow, Hawkeye, and especially the Hulk. Not only is Whedon the first filmmaker to give us a Hulk we can stand up and cheer for, he also manages to take an eye-candy non-character like Black Widow (as far as Iron Man 2 had it anyway) and turn her into someone far richer. If you’re well-versed in Joss Whedon’s work, his ability to capture depth in character and theme with a deft and effortless hand isn’t going to surprise you. All I can do is tell you that he pulls it off here, and then some, and for everyone else: this stuff is what makes this movie so very exceptional. Read the rest of this entry »

This post is a reaction to the overwhelmingly weird reaction many critics are having to the inclusion of SHIELD and pre-Avengers continuity hustle in the various Marvel movies to date. If you doubt that there is such a reaction, go take a peek at a few reviews from the more geek-savvy blogs, sites, and critics out there. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Convinced? Good. I really didn’t want to have to link a pile of reviews and seriously ask you to read them before reading what I have to say here. Read the rest of this entry »

Thor is ultimately about these two fellas right here.

There was no way a Marvel superhero movie about a technological super-being version of a Norse God was going to work was there? With all that spectacle edging into the pretty grounded version of the superhero universe established by Iron Man (and its sequel) or The Incredible Hulk, it was all destined to fall apart wasn’t it? Too many ridiculous hats and just too goddamn much power in the hands of a guy who ultimately has to work with other, arguably less powerful, individuals in order to stop some titanic threat in a later movie we know is happening. Just no way Thor was ever going to be made to fit with all that shit.

Or was there? Read the rest of this entry »

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