Review: “Ant-Man”

Marvel's Ant-Man..Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd)..Photo Credit: Zade Rosenthal..? Marvel 2014

In a world of billionaires flying in weaponized suits and green monsters pummeling puny gods, it’s nice to know that heroes can also come in smaller packages.

Rounding out Marvel’s Phase 2 (which began with 2013’s “Iron Man 3”), “Ant-Man” brings the ever-expanding superhero genre back down to the basics. With ongoing cinematic universes in both Marvel and DC, origin stories are somewhat viewed in the same way a child today may look at a Game Boy from ’89: it’s kinda fun, but you know it could be a lot cooler.

After recently paroled Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) breaks into the home of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and takes a strange looking suit, he discovers he has the ability to shrink down to the size of an ant at the turn of a switch. Teaming up with Pym and Pym’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Scott agrees to help them steal some of Hank’s old research that is about to be put into the wrong hands.

As an origin tale, the story hits many of the beats audiences have come to expect but the tone of the film is what it makes it unique. Combining the wittiness and technology of “Iron Man” with the plot of an average heist film, “Ant-Man” entertains without the need for giant battle sequences and an alien threat.

The threat, however, does come from the same boring assembly line that produced every other Marvel villain who isn’t Loki (a petulant child, but the best Marvel’s written so far). Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is the man who took over Pym’s company and wants to sell his Ant-Man technology to the highest bidder, no matter what that may mean for the rest of the world. Just cut and paste any of Iron Man’s villains from his solo films and replace robotic suits with a shrinking one. It’s the same idea.

Paul Rudd does well as the titular hero. His character seems unique from the rest of the Avengers lineup while also fitting into the universe. Though Rudd’s signature charm is on full display here, it’s Michael Pena’s character, Luis, who really steals the show. A fellow criminal, Luis is Lang’s right hand man and the film’s biggest source of comedy.

The main plot of Lang becoming the Ant-Man is fun to watch, but much of the excitement around the film has more to do with the larger Marvel cinematic universe as it continues to expand. Without spoiling anything, there are plugs for Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man and other Marvel storylines throughout the film which remind us of what is to come.

As a down-to-earth superhero movie, “Ant-Man” works more often than not. It’s fun to watch, has decent characters, and provides just enough action to satisfy those who need it.

Grade: B-

Happy viewing.

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Review: “Avengers: Age of Ultron”

Avengers 2

In the summer of 2008, Marvel began a journey with “Iron Man” that culminated in 2012’s first team-up with the star-studded Avengers. Since then we’ve added more solo outings for Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the mostly irrelevant (but downright entertaining) “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Now that we’ve come back around to another outing with the Avengers, the question is: Can the sequel live up to its predecessor’s expectations? The short answer is “no,” but that’s not such a bad thing.

“Age of Ultron” picks up with the full team rushing to defeat Baron von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann), a leader of Hydra, who possesses Loki’s scepter from the previous film. Though the villain is foiled rather easily, his work lives on in superhuman twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) Maximoff. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) discovers that the scepter holds the key to artificial intelligence, he decides to create Ultron (James Spader), an AI system that can theoretically police the world through an army of robots. If you’ve seen any science fiction movie ever you probably know where this is headed.

In the first Avengers film Joss Whedon spent a large portion of its running time bringing the team together as a unit. Like an NBA franchise that brings in several megastars on one team, there has to be time for ego to give way to camaraderie. With that issue mostly settled, the new film gives the audience a look at a more mature squad of heroes. More choreographed team maneuvers cannot hide, however, the divisions that will be coming soon in Captain America 3 when civil war strikes.

There is no mistaking that “Age of Ultron” tries to make up for the flaws of its predecessor as well as a recent DC film. The former is that the film spends a lot of time developing and shining a spotlight on Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye. Under mind control for most of the first film, here the archer gets to make more quips and interacts frequently with Pietro aka Quicksilver. As for that DC film, one of the main gripes Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel” received was that it didn’t firmly establish Superman’s concern for civilians and their safety. Fast forward to “Age of Ultron” and we are spending half of the finale watching Avengers put people on lifeboats to avoid Ultron’s deadly plan. It doesn’t detract from the action enough to be a major complaint, but no one really bought a ticket to watch the Red Cross go to work either.

While the film delivers more than enough explosions and laughs to warrant the ticket price, the sequel does have a “been there, done that” feel to it. Perhaps I’m the only one, but 11 Marvel films is a lot. Part of the reason why “The Winter Soldier” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” were able to breathe life into the Marvel universe is because they felt different and each had its own personality. “Age of Ultron”, on the other hand, feels more like a generic superhero movie. Very fun and entertaining, but generic nonetheless.

Originally the film was set to be roughly a half hour longer, but Whedon and Co. were forced to leave a lot of footage on the cutting room floor. This leaves the film with a bit of an uneven pace as well as a few small questions in the plot. It also makes Thor a substantially less interesting character by reportedly cutting out most of his subplot setting up 2017’s Thor 3.

But enough with the negative, let’s talk some positives.

  • Though I think the character could have been handled better, James Spader was perfect casting for Ultron. Voice acting isn’t as easy as some people make it out to be and he nailed it.
  • “Age of Ultron” was finally able to make the team feel like something more than Tony Stark and friends. For good reason, Robert Downey Jr. has been the face of the franchise until now, but here he is a member of a team rather than the most important guy in the room.

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is an imperfect, but entertaining action film that sometimes suffers from being too generic and following a long line of other Marvel films.

Grade: B

Since the internet is all about lists these days, I would probably rank “Age of Ultron” 4th out of all of the Marvel films to date, just between “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Iron Man”. Feel free to share your thoughts below.

Happy viewing.

Review: “Guardians of the Galaxy”

Guardians of the Galaxy

With only a couple of quality films under its belt, Summer 2014 was looking like a major bust for the film industry. Things started well with “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” recently breathed a little life into the box office. Just as it looked like the summer might end with a whimper, “Guardians of the Galaxy” is here to revolutionize the superhero genre.

After he is beamed aboard a spaceship as a child, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is raised by smugglers and scavengers. During the course of a big score, a bounty is put on his head that draws the likes of Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). After a series of events lands them in jail, they come across Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) who is on a vengeful path to kill Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace). As it so happens, Ronan is also after an artifact that is possessed by Quill, who also goes by Star Lord.

Thus the Guardians of the Galaxy come together as assassins, thieves, and…tree things to fight Ronan and save the planet he intends to destroy.

The concept of the film is a pretty tall order as it has traces of “Star Wars” but carries the attitude of a Saturday morning cartoon. Fortunately, James Gunn is at the helm and he understands the material perfectly. His direction is fun, though fairly by-the-numbers, and makes the film reach its full potential. The previous Marvel films have all favored a lighter tone mixed with their heroes, but this latest film has perfected the formula and delivered the most entertaining film of the summer.

“Guardians” is one of the, if not THE, best casted superhero films of all time. From Pratt and the rest of the heroes to Pace’s Ronan and even the superb choice of Michael Rooker as Yondu, the smuggler who raised Quill. This film started with a leg up because each character has the right person playing them.

While it certainly delivers on the laughs, a superhero space film without good special effects and action sequences would be a waste of time. Luckily, there’s nothing to worry about on those fronts. Though “The Avengers” and “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” might have the film beat on fight scenes, there are more than enough fisticuffs and explosions to suit your summer blockbuster needs.

The plot alone is compelling enough to warrant the ticket price, but it’s the characters that make the film worth remembering. The opening scene of the film establishes its heart by showing us Quill’s life on earth before he is abducted. That heart continues throughout the film with the relationship between the characters and their backstories. Even Drax the Destroyer is an endearing character and Bautista plays him with the perfect amount of rage and humor. One of the best relationships of the film is between Rocket and Groot, the group’s least human characters. Rocket is a raccoon who can fight as well as talk after some nasty lab experiments and Groot is essentially a talking tree (granted he only says “I am Groot”) that can beat the sap out of some bad guys. Their Han Solo/Chewbacca relationship is one of the films more heartwarming qualities.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was such a weird concept that it was either going to bust or be the biggest hit of the summer. I’m glad to report that the latter is, in fact, true.

Grade: A+

Happy viewing.

Review: “Thor: The Dark World”

Thor The Dark World

Ah, finally. Summer is over and we can get to the best films of the year in the fall. Wait, Thor what? Dang.

One would think that “Thor: The Dark World” would have found a better home this summer amid the utter failures of “R.I.P.D.” and “The Lone Ranger”, but seeing as it’s already made $345 million worldwide against competitors like “Free Birds” and “Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa”, Marvel is probably totally cool with it.

This latest trip to Asgard picks up where “The Avengers” left off: Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is imprisoned, but the nine realms are somewhat in disarray. Just as things return to normal, an ancient enemy, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), returns to find a weapon known as the Aether and destroy the universe.

Aside from bringing in Eccleston (of “Doctor Who” fame), the sequel brings back pretty much every character from its predecessor. Yes, this means more comical abuse at the hands of Kat Dennings’ character, Darcy.

I can’t be the only one feeling superhero (mainly Marvel) fatigue. Bringing the Avengers together was a great idea, but we aren’t even to “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” yet and it feels like these films are just going through the motions. Just so you don’t think I’m a total downer, though, I am anticipating the next Captain America film. I think the first one misfired too often but the character is a great one.

As for this film, it suffers from a problem that it shares with the first “Thor”: the romance between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Jane (Natalie Portman) is one of the most forced pairings ever seen in a comic book film. Instead of chemistry, it’s just Jane fawning over the size of Thor’s arms and acting like a little kid.

Another problem the film, and often Marvel, has is that villain is completely forgettable. There’s not even a single line Malekith speaks that I can recall at this moment. It’s all very generic stuff and subtitled. The bad guys in this film belong in a bad episode of Star Trek or a good episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The worst part being that Malekith is actually a pretty good villain in the comics.

Ok, so maybe the characters are a little underdeveloped. At least the action is cool, right? Sorry, the action sequences in “Thor: The Dark World” are mostly boring. Poorly shot, poorly choreographed and too much CGI. Why should I care about Asgard under attack when everything is either too fake or shown in such an uninteresting way? There are 3 scenes that pass for decent action and they total about 2 minutes of the film. Even the final fight scene is boring, with only a barrage of humor to make it enjoyable.

And, boy, is it a barrage. This film has so many jokes tucked into it that Robert Downey Jr. would tell it to slow down. Some of these jokes work quite well, but by the end of the film it gets to be too much. There’s a reason why it’s called “comic relief” and not “comic drowning”. There’s a red line of comedy you can’t cross in a film like this or else the laughs become detrimentally superfluous and steal from any tension or drama you’re trying to create. We cross it here long before the finale.

The one character that saves the film from the trash bin is Hiddleston’s Loki. He is both the best source of comedy and drama in a film that is mostly forgettable. It seems his character is always the driving force behind Thor/The Avengers and, not to spoil anything, his actions have repercussions at the end of this film as well. The appearance of another Marvel hero in the film is also one of its biggest highlights.

“Thor: The Dark World” is enjoyable at times, but overall feels like another missed opportunity for Marvel. As always with these movies, be sure to stay through the credits for a bonus scene.

Grade: C