Captain Marvel

Release: Friday, March 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck; Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Directed by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck

Captain Marvel figures to be a significant piece in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acting as both a standalone origins story and a precursor to Jon Favreau’s standard-setting Iron Man; ipso facto it predates the entire MCU. That’s a pretty bold decision considering how much we are preoccupied with the present and the future of our favorite characters. Unfortunately the story this film tells isn’t quite so bold, the awkward way it ties into the overarching saga arguably a distraction more than it is an exciting talking point. Yet by force of personality Captain Marvel overcomes its weaknesses, and there is no denying the Avengers will be adding another nuke to their already impressive arsenal.

Unbeknownst to me, Captain Marvel is a generic name that actually refers to several characters, the very first appearing in 1967 as Captain Mar-Vell, a male (albeit an alien) military officer sent to our humble corner of the universe to spy on us and who, having grown sympathetic to the plight of mankind, ultimately switched allegiances, becoming a protector of Earth and a traitor to his own race. Multiple incarnations followed, with the character’s gender constantly changing (e.g. Phyla-Vell was female while Khn’nr and others were male) — justified by the episodic nature of comics and their need and ability to adapt.

That brings us to Carol Danvers, a half-human, half-alien super-being whose specific powers — supersonic flight, incredible strength, an ability to control and manipulate energy forms — identify her as one of the most powerful figures in the Marvel realm. As such, she wins the lottery to become the first female subject of a Marvel movie, its 21st overall. Captain Marvel is a reliably entertaining chapter that balances humor with heartache, becoming just as much about the struggle to find her real identity as it is about her discovering her powers and how she decides to wield them. It may not be winning many points in the original storytelling department, but it does have a winning cast of characters, fronted by Brie Larson and a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg and provided depth by the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, British actress Lashana Lynch . . . and one Hala of a cat.

Directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known heretofore for indie fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Sugar, keep their story pretty earthbound with only a few signature scenes sending us beyond our atmosphere. In terms of scale, it’s surely a bigger deal than Ant-Man, but if Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a tour of the cosmic town, Captain Marvel barely introduces us to our next-door neighbors. The relative intimacy certainly feels appropriate since the human side of the story manifests as a journey inward, into the heart and mind of a character unsure of herself. The superhero plot meanwhile draws elements from the Kree-Skrull War comic book storyline, setting up an intergalactic war between two alien races wherein we innocent earthlings get caught in the middle and need Captain Marvel to come to our defense.

Captain Marvel opens on an alien world known as Hala, the galactic capital of the Kree Empire. A young woman named Vers is awakening from a nightmare involving some older woman who looks a lot like Annette Bening, but that’s impossible since this kind of material is several fathoms beneath an actress of her caliber. But upon closer inspection I confirmed it is indeed Bening, playing a mystical figure referred to as the Supreme Intelligence, to whom Vers is sent at the behest of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is concerned about Vers’ inability to control her emotions. The Supreme Intelligence doubles down on that cautionary advice before sending the pair on a dangerous mission to rescue an undercover operative on a distant planet overrun by the enemy Skrulls. Naturally the mission goes awry when the team gets ambushed and Vers becomes separated from Yon-Rogg and her other Starforce colleagues, the former crash-landing on some scrap pile known as C-53 (a.k.a. Earth). Even worse, she’s a fish out of water in mid-90s L.A. and if fashion is anything to go by, it isn’t exactly our species’ finest hour (luckily she didn’t crash land a decade earlier).

Vers is soon intercepted by a couple of serious-looking, suit-wearing gentlemen who work for an agency whose name should never have been provided in this film for continuity’s sake. A two-eyed Nick Fury and a Just For Men advocate in young Phil Coulson witness something extraordinary when a Skrull invader crashes the scene. Because the Skrulls have this ability to change their appearance, identifying friend from foe becomes problematic, with a notable alien named Talos taking the form of Fury’s higher-up and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller (Mendelsohn) and another impersonating Agent Coulson. After shaking this shape-shifting shit off Fury, at the direction of Talos the predictable script, leads Vers to a U.S. Air Force Base place of thematic relevance where she finds clues to her past life — photographic evidence of her as a pilot and news clippings presuming her dead after a disastrous testing of an experimental new engine designed by a Dr. Wendy Lawson (played by Spoiler Spoilerson).

She also learns she had a close friend in Maria Rambeau (Lynch), an important link in the ole’ jogging-the-memory chain (not to mention in the realm of the MCU at large — her daughter Monica, played by an instantly lovable Akira Akbar, ostensibly set to play yet another version of Captain Marvel in the sequel — Ms. Marvel, perhaps?). The scene at the house in Louisiana is among the film’s best, the emotion that comes pouring out here no doubt a result of the indie flavor the directing tandem have brought to this much bigger project. Whether it is Lynch describing what it feels like to see her bestie return from the dead — hence the longevity of the MCU,  the human cost of being in the superhero biz has always been handled in an interesting way — or Mendelsohn getting a really juicy character whose intentions are not what they first seem, Captain Marvel soars in these more grounded moments.

Even as the action takes a turn for the surprisingly cooperative, the character work is ultimately what saves Captain Marvel from its own Negative Zone of mediocrity. While the action sequences are worthy of the big screen treatment they aren’t as integral to the personality of the film as Larson is in the title role. At one time considered too young to play the part of an Air Force pilot (this was before the filmmakers double-checked with members of the American Air Force who confirmed it is possible for a 26-year-old to be so accomplished), Larson acquits herself with the utmost confidence, maturing from reckless and unpredictable to every bit the noble warrior hero she so advertises her people as to her de facto partner in Agent Fury.

Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is by far Larson’s most high-profile role to date and while the plight of the superhero is unfamiliar territory for someone who has developed herself through such intimate human dramas as Room and Short Term 12, you wouldn’t know it based on her confidence and how much fun she’s having here. And sorry to break it to the basement dwelling trolls who review-bombed her new movie, a perma-smile does not for a natural performance make. I personally don’t need to see someone smiling through every damn frame of the movie to know they’re enjoying themselves, or to know what this material and this role means to them.

What is this thing called The Oregon Trail?

Recommendation: While I didn’t think Captain Marvel is a game-changer — save for the first earthly encounter with the Skrulls the action scenes are pretty forgettable — it certainly has its strengths, namely the lead character and the friends she ends up making along the way. It might go without saying for most of these Important Marvel Movies but considering the way this one was seemingly preordained to fail by insecure men before it even opened, it really seems that ignoring the internet has never been more crucial in allowing you to experience the film on your own terms. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “You know anything about a lady blowing up a Blockbuster? Witnesses say she was dressed for laser tag.”

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

Release: Friday, July 6, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers; Paul Rudd; Andrew Barrer; Gabriel Ferrari

Directed by: Peyton Reed

You’ve read it everywhere: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a refreshingly lightweight summer adventure that offers up more laughs than big character moments. It’s more of a superhero side dish than an entrée. But that’s okay for viewers like me, whose stomachs are starting to get pretty full with all the superhero shenanigans.

Is it me, or does “quantum entanglement” sound more like the way scientists fall in love rather than an actual problem they must solve? (“Hey everyone, I’d like you to meet my Scientist Girlfriend — we just recently got quantumly entangled.”) Alas, this isn’t a joke. Getting stuck in the quantum realm is quite serious, I assure you. Granted, not as serious as what we all went through a few weeks ago when Thanos snapped his decorated little fingers and turned half the audience into a sobbing mess. Mercifully, this is a new, pre-war chapter that gets away from all of that and returns us to a time when the superhero stakes weren’t so tiresomely dramatic.

The follow-up film to the Phase 2 finale finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) growing restless under house arrest. On the one hand, this has provided him an opportunity to spend some quality time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). On the other, his careless actions at the airport two years ago (you know, when Steve Rogers blamed Tony for losing his luggage) have created a rift between him and his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They’ve gone on the run in an attempt to keep their miraculous shrinking technology a secret.

Scott has only a few days left to finish out his sentence, but that’s a large enough window for him to find trouble. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t go looking for it; it finds him. He spends his time trying not to go insane in isolation, kept on a short leash by his parole officer (Randall Park, enjoying himself immensely). When Scott experiences a vision of Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) still stuck in the quantum realm, his former allies seek him out in an attempt to retrieve her from the abyss to which they believed she had been forever lost.

It’s a ridiculous leap of faith following a simple voicemail but hey, there are worse plot mechanizations out there. Solving the problem of returning safely from the microscopic world isn’t the only challenge ahead of them, however. Because Scott in effect went public with his little stunt in Captain America: Civil War, a number of competing third parties are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to benefit in some way from Pym’s genius.

There’s the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who sees the potential profit that can be made from getting into the quantum business. He gets into a little bit of a struggle with Hope over a parts deal that sours just as Ava Starr/”Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) appears out of nowhere. Ava is a young woman who seeks a cure for her gradually weakening physical state as a result of — and let’s not get too personal here — her unstable molecules. On top of that, we are introduced to a former colleague of Hank, a Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), whose life work blahdee-bloodee-blahblah. He has a few reasons to make things more difficult for Ant-Man and the gang.

If anything, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about a family coming back together. That’s kind of the perfect scope for a film following one of the most financially successful (and costly) cinematic events in history. Like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating the ex-con receives from Hank and Hope. This sense of family extends to Scott’s friends over at X-Con Security, a consulting firm he and his ex-con friends — Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris) — started up in an attempt to go legitimate. Though these personalities don’t get much time to do their thing, you still feel the support system they provide for their perpetually-in-trouble pal Scott.

Of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really achieve any of these things without Rudd anchoring the movie. Never mind the fact he offers up a pretty wonderful example of fatherhood, he is just so effortlessly likable in the suit that he has quickly become a favorite of mine, in spite of how minor that role really is in the grand scheme. For my money, he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Reynolds in terms of infectious personalities. You have to squint to see him but he’s there, standing on the shoulders of giants while slowly but surely becoming one himself.

“Honey, I shrunk everything I cared about.”

Recommendation: Ant-Man and the Wasp is the beneficiary of Paul Rudd and a really likable all-around cast of characters. In a time when browsing through the back catalogue of the ever-expanding MCU feels a lot like shopping for flavors of Gatorade, it’s nice to have a superhero film that is not quite as preoccupied with furthering, deepening, expanding, extrapolating, implicating, duplicating, redacting, whatever-ing that all of the other chapters seem to be about. The more I think about the simplicity of this film the more I like it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Well, the ’60s were fun, but now I’m paying for it!”

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Captain America: Civil War

'Captain America - Civil War' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 6, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo

Standing in a line of about 200 rabid fans an hour before the screening I was asked by a woman in line — a hot mom actually — if this was the line for the Avengers movie. I really wanted to tell her, “No, this is for Captain America,” but who am I kidding, this is totally an Avengers movie. And so I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Cool,” and then we both just went back to our lives.

That Captain America: Civil War is closer in spirit to one of those ultra-blockbusters is actually good news for me as I’ve never really stood behind Captain America. The Boy Scout/super-soldier kind of ruffles my feathers for some reason, and that’s through no fault of Chris Evans either. Nevertheless there I was, middle of a mob on a Saturday afternoon, the manufactured product of a month-long brainwashing program designed to win my allegiance toward either Team Steve or Team Tony.

Civil War is a film whose emotional upshot takes an eternity to eventuate, but when it does it’s actually well worth the two-and-a-half-hour sit. Steve and his embattled friend Bucky, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are at the heart of a complex moral, emotional and psychological battle that divides the Avengers — all but Hulk and Thor, of course, who are off galavanting elsewhere — straight down the middle when they are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, a peacekeeping effort drawn up by the United Nations in response to the concerns of a growing population that thinks the Avengers are doing more harm than good.

After yet another disaster, this time in Wakanda at the hands of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who has completely given up on trying to sound Russian at this point), in steps Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to give everyone a choice: either agree to the sanctions, to be potentially overruled in any given situation if it is deemed necessary . . . or retire from the superhero biz.

And then everyone seems to get really mad. Needless to say, the stakes are high this time, higher than they were when Loki was trying to divide and conquer from within all those movies ago, if you can believe it . . . (wasn’t it pretty much doomsday then, too?) One side argues for their continued autonomy while the other, surprisingly spearheaded by a guilt-ridden Tony, believes having a watchdog might help prevent future awkward encounters with any living relatives of people he has inadvertently killed.

Thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, two writers keen to redress familiar characters under this new guise of bitterness, distrust and uncertainty, there are equally compelling reasons to join either camp. In fact as Civil War progresses it gets ever more entrenched in the complexities of this ideological conflict. The appearance of a cold German militant named Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the one behind an earlier attack on the UN that claims the life of Wakanda King T’Chaka, father of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), inspires Steve to ignore new-age protocol as he attempts to stop Zemo from unleashing a secret arsenal of other Winter Soldiers being kept in cryogenic stasis at a Hydra facility in Siberia.

Civil War, like Tony and Steve, has a lot on its plate, but it wisely (and creatively) spreads the workload across its many players. Even if Downey Jr. takes this opportunity to effect a more somber version of his character than we’re used to seeing, that famous acerbic wit is never lost with the integration of Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland’s amazingly acne-free Peter Parker/Spider Man. Black Panther digs his claws in with menacing presence and a lot of righteous anger. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye returns as do Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Paul Bettany as the visionary . . . Vision.

Even though giving each their time to shine means taking some away from Evans, extended interactions between less famous figures are more than welcome and give these individuals purpose within the context of the cinematic retelling of their own journeys. Bettany is perhaps the highlight, his loyalty to protecting the lone Maximoff twin from destruction following her actions in Wakanda offering a miniaturized version of the conundrum facing Iron Man and Captain America. And then there’s Black Panther’s determination to take out the one responsible for his father’s death.

For all of the potential devastation that is implied Civil War isn’t a dour affair. It doesn’t dwell in misery, and it really could have. There’s a melancholy vibe here, but the Russo brothers seem comfortable conforming to Marvel’s standard of finding levity amidst dire circumstances, injecting humor into scenes that would otherwise trend DC-dark. (God forbid that ever happen.) A movie with ‘war’ in its title going the comedy route is a risky proposition, and though this isn’t devoid moments of weakness, the continued expansion of a world parallel to ours allows them to pass quickly. There’s so much going on that Civil War all but demands repeat viewings. Eight years into the game, that’s a very good thing for the MCU.

I wonder what the hot mom thought about all of it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.03.32 AM

Recommendation: With the slightly-famous actors as comfortable as ever in their respective roles, Civil War benefits from the intersection of emotionally resonant performance and thoughtful, crafty storytelling. People like me — non-Captain fans — benefit greatly from the distraction of the other people around him fighting for what they believe is right for the future of the Avengers. A solid realization of a very complicated time, and the balance struck herein makes it one of my favorites of the entire MCU canon thus far.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking, or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestion.” 

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Ant-Man

ant_man_ver2

Release: Friday, July 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Edgar Wright; Joe Cornish; Adam McKay; Paul Rudd

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Well, it’s official. After watching this, stepping on ants for me is a thing of the past. Stepping on ants is murder.

If someone were to ask me what would be the strangest superhero for Marvel Studios to base a movie around, Ant-man would be the last thing I would have suggested. Then again, I’m likely not the best person to ask such a question, as my ignorance when it comes to everything comic book-related borders on embarrassing. Until it was announced last year that they were casting the role of Scott Lang/Ant-man, I had no idea that this was actually a thing.

When Paul Rudd was confirmed, suddenly I became antsy to see it. (Do we need to start tallying all of these awful puns?)

Edgar Wright’s . . . er, sorry, Peyton Reed’s Ant-man, the final film in the MCU’s Phase Two, is ultimately a successful new addition because the star of the film — a high-tech suit designed by former S.H.I.E.L.D. member Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — represents one of the riskier propositions Marvel has had to sell relative newcomers to the superhero genre in some time. Let’s be honest, for every Marvel geek in attendance there is likely to be at least three who aren’t quite as attuned.

Everyone of course will continue basking in the glory of the Avengers’ camaraderie, pondering the likelihood of another stand-alone Hulk movie, eagerly anticipating the return of Chris Pratt’s Starlord. The popularity contest was won even before Tony Stark came on the scene in 2008. Basing a film around a piece of tech that can shrink a man to the size of an insect, enabling him to gain strength in the process, well   . . . that’s a difficult pitch. Similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, obscurity actually works in Ant-man‘s favor.

Unlike Guardians, Ant-man isn’t quite as dynamic or willing to take risks with its principals. That’s mostly because the main character itself is riskier than Gamora and Groot put together. (His name is Ant-man for Pete’s sake.) Neither film has a particularly inventive story to offer — it’s either save the galaxy or save the world from villains who equal one another in their villainous ineptitude. The former, however, did have spectacular visual effects and a cast of characters that remain vivid today. Conversely, Ant-man isn’t so interested in characters as it is in the environment, taking a magnifying glass to the mundanity that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Bathtubs, briefcases, children’s rooms and playsets become wild, vast expanses that play host to all sorts of adventure and exhilaration.

Déjà vu: Ant-man is an origin story. It operates, somewhat uninspired, as a redemption arc for a con-man wanting to do right by his young daughter. Despite the fact he has an electrical engineering background, Scott Lang has made a life out of cat burglary, robbing people without using violence. As such he has lost privileges with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter, after having served one too many prison sentences. When “one last robbery” leads Scott to discover a kind of jumpsuit in the heavily-protected cellar of an eccentric old man, he is faced with the opportunity to save more than just his reputation as an absentee dad and husband. Old habits die even harder when they are vital to the plot.

A sinister development within Pym Technologies sees Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Hank’s former protégé, on the brink of harnessing the same power he had discovered, and has plans on unleashing it upon the world. Reed, whose previous directing credits are a little more than questionable, doesn’t rely on groundbreaking storytelling techniques, epic action setpieces nor particularly memorable performances to effect a highly entertaining, mischievous little outing that completely ignores its once-disastrous potential. Ants are hardly anyone’s favorite creature (sorry if they are yours) but in his film, ants become the good guys. I feel like that’s a feat in and of itself. We even get an education on their various classifications.

So, no. No I’m not stepping on any more ants. Even if this film had potential to become slightly more explosive I personally got a lot out of this exercise, other than realizing Paul Rudd can pretty much do anything he wants. Ants aren’t soulless, they aren’t the harbingers of ruined picnics I once thought them to be. Sure, they might be pests who always seem to find a way into your house but the next time I see a string of soldier ants strutting their stuff from one hole in the wall to the other, it might be best to assume they are reporting for duty.

Recommendation: Ant-man works as a genuinely entertaining (and genuinely harmless) bit of sci-fi action, though it will exist on the fringe in terms of Marvel’s most memorable outings. Its best attributes come in the form of a reliable Paul Rudd and some impressive visual effects which end up doing much of the film’s heavy lifting as the story shifts between points of view. Even if this character has eluded you until now, you should check it out and see what all the ant-icipation was about.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “It’s very rare you get invited back to the same place you robbed from.”

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