Homework, Hormones, & Happy Hogan: The balancing act of ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

Jon Watts is just 36, a baby by filmmaker standards. His first two films were Clown, a tiny body horror film that grossed just $2 million, and Cop Car, a very good but sparsely seen Kevin Bacon thriller that didn’t even gross $150K. I’m not sure what would make Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige pin him as the director capable of the very difficult balancing act that is Spider-Man: Homecoming, but that’s why Feige gets paid a lot of money to make these decisions and I get paid no money to react to them.

Homecoming is an experiment in genre. Within its superhero responsibilities -thrusting one of the two or three most iconic characters in American comics into the biggest franchise in American cinema- it also sets out to be a genuine coming-of-age high school film. Call it “Perks of Being a Wall-Climber”. It’s the first time in multiple big-screen iterations of the character that Peter Parker’s conflict is just as important to the film, if not more important, than Spidey’s conflict. Yes, Spider-Man wants to impress Tony Stark, officially become an Avenger, and stop the bad guy. But just as important to the film’s narrative is Peter wanting to impress his crush. Throughout the film Peter is forced to make decisions. Does he follow the van full of alien weapons? Or does he go to his crushes’ party? These decisions drive his character arc. Again, this is a true coming-of-age film, and a very good one. Peter is stuck in limbo between who he’s been and who he wants to be, both as a teenager and a superhero.

A hilarious early sequence shows us some events from Captain America: Civil War from Spidey’s perspective, via cell phone footage. It communicates Peter’s excitement perfectly. When the timeline fast-forwards to the present day, Peter is back in Queens, going to school, and fighting small-time crime after school, all under the watchful eye of Tony Stark’s bodyguard Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Peter thinks he could be doing a lot more, but neither Stark nor Happy are returning his calls. He’s clearly not ready yet. His skills aren’t polished. He doesn’t even really know to use his fancy suit.

At school, Peter is a bit of a classic geek. He’s on the academic decathlon team. He and his best friend Ned (a hilarious Jacob Batalon) are the types who still get excited over a Death Star LEGO set. His crush, Liz (Laura Harrier), doesn’t seem to know he exists. While these dynamics may seem like clichés at first, they’re explored in real detail. There’s depth to the adolescent conflicts Peter goes through.

That’s a lot to balance in what’s supposed to be a lighthearted summer blockbuster. Thankfully, Watts and his exceptional cast were up to the challenge.

It all starts with Tom Holland, who almost instantly establishes himself as the best Spidey and Peter yet. He actually looks like a high schooler, for one. He also carries an effortless charm that makes his learning curve throughout the film heartwarming rather than annoying. There’s a concerned effort to capture the youthful exuberance of Peter in this film, and Holland proves the perfect muse for such a task. Physically, he has a real pep in his step. Whether in the suit or in typical milennial teenage attire, you can see Peter’s enthusiasm in the way Holland moves. There are even a few scenes that require some real dramatic acting, going as far as bringing the character to tears, and Holland nails it.

As for the villain, something that has plagued even the stronger MCU films, Homecoming succeeds effortlessly. Michael Keaton plays Adrian Toomes (aka The Vulture), a government-contracted metal salvager turned arms dealer who builds himself a winged suit. He has a real, believable, even relatable conflict. He’s not concerned with world domination. He doesn’t have some weird personal vendetta against the Avengers. He’s just a dude who gets screwed out of work and wants to provide for his family and the family of employees. The film has a few surprises with the character that I won’t spoil but are handled perfectly. There’s a scene where Toomes is in a car with Peter and a simple conversation makes for the most intense moment in the movie. Such is the power of Keaton, an actor of seemingly unlimited talent, capable of both finding the humanity in the character but also being genuinely creepy when the script calls for it. He steals every scene he is in. It’s a truly marvelous performance from one of our finest actors.

Another neat thing about Homecoming that sets it above other Spidey movies is it’s authentic New York flavor. There’s the diversity, for starters. Peter’s high school peers look like you’d expect them to given that Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse urban hubs in America. But the film never goes out of its way to highlight this diversity. It’s just there, natural for all the characters. The film’s biggest action set piece takes place on the Staten Island ferry. Peter even has a favorite bodega. Being a teenager in New York is a huge part of Peter’s identity, and this is ultimately a film about his identity, so capturing that was important.

Homecoming, credited to a whopping six screenwriters and edited by Dan Lebental and Debbie Berman, is structured in a way so the dueling narratives unfold simultaneously. This isn’t a film that begins as a high school story and then becomes standard superhero fare halfway through. Both sides move forward with equal pacing, which really helps Peter’s character arc. Salvatore Totino’s photography is very smart. During major action scenes featuring the Vulture, who’s questionable CGI is the film’s one true weakness, Totino lights them dimly so that the questionable CGI is tougher to notice. And the editing team makes use of rapid cuts. It’s a very clever film, technically speaking. Do I wish some of the VFX work looked better? Sure. But here, unlike the countless films that feature middling VFX work, it doesn’t really get in the way. Watts and his team know this film’s strength is its characters, and that’s what is shown off.

As heavily as Robert Downey Jr. was featured in promotional material (which is understandable), he’s not as a big a part of the film as you’d expect. He pops in here and there to give Peter fatherly advice and criticism, lending trademark Downeyisms to the film, but never overstays his welcome. Happy Hogan is his surrogate in a sense, but even Happy doesn’t overpopulate things. This film is very much a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but its obligations to the larger story never get in the way. If anything, the presence of the Avengers in the world of this film helps Peter as a character.

Everything in Homecoming works. Watts directs most scenes with an improvisational nature, fitting given the often comedic tone and the fact that most of the characters are just teenagers. His influences are clear; John Hughes, most notably. There’s a visual reference to Hughes’ Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  that’s maybe a bit heavy-handed but so charming that you’ll forgive its lack of subtlety.

This is *probably* the best Spider-Man film to date. It’s also one of the best MCU films, and perhaps the strongest blockbuster of a frustrating summer season thus far. A crowd-pleaser that’ll surely be a smash hit and reward repeated viewings, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a triumph in popcorn movie-making. More of this, please.

 

Brie Larson is (probably) joining the Marvel illuminati. Suck it, ostentatious journos.

Resistance is futile. Free will is a fallacy. We are mere puppets whose strings run all the way to Burbank; where folks like Alan Horn, Kathleen Kennedy, and Kevin Feige sit in their surely profligate offices, manipulating our fervent geekishness as if we were some inferior species completely submissive to and dependent on their merchandise-friendly output. I mean, we are, if social media tracking and opening-weekend numbers are sufficient measuring sticks for such acquiescence. There are just enough conglomerates to keep the business of mainstream filmmaking/distributing an oligopoly. But in any modern oligopoly there’s one seller a cut above the rest. There’s an apex predator and then there’s a small group of vultures circling above until the opportune moment comes along for them to pick at the scraps. Walt Disney Studios is that apex predator right now.

This is not your grandfather’s Disney. This Disney has Pixar, Hollywood’s most bankable entity for two decades now. This Disney has fucking STAR WARS. Perhaps most notably, this Disney has Marvel studios. Much to the chagrin of failed screenwriters turned pretentious journalists –the types who claim to have seen all 30 Kurosawa films and refer to anything slightly unconventional in its narrative or look as “Malickian”- Marvel Studios’ recipe has proven itself effective on both commercial and artistic levels. The movies in this shared universe blend unapologetic fanfare with spectacular action, garnished with just enough storytelling merit and self-aware humor to make even those inherently cynical viewers crack a smile (even if they won’t admit it).

It’s working. Captain America: Civil War has grossed $1.1B worldwide and counting. The Avengers, the initial columniation of Marvel’s evil plan, made $1.5B and currently sits as the 5th biggest movie of all-time. For fuck’s sake, Guardians of the Galaxy, an offbeat film based on a group of characters not even a decade old in print only known by the most dedicated Marvel fanatics, made more money in the states than Man of Steel.  All three of those Marvel movies sit above a 90% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes. For all the conventional wisdom about franchises eventually capsizing and bitter thinkpieces about something called “superhero fatigue” that only actually exists in WordPress drafts, Marvel keeps increasing its market share. It keeps adding top-of-the-line acting talent as if doing so was the 4th law of physics.

The kindling for this cyber rant reared its beautiful face yesterday when Brie Larson (fresh of her Oscar for Room) was reported by Variety to be in talks to become Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers, arguably the most well-known female hero in the Marvel oeuvre. The initial reactions from fans and journalists were predictably varying. Someone is out there right now tweeting about how awesome it is to see such a great actress join the franchise as such an iconic character. Someone else is calling this likely casting predictable and therefore boring. Someone is probably even pitching a piece to IndieWire about how the system forces talented performers to compromise their art in order to blah blah blah. Did you know: Every time a great actor signs on for a role in a superhero movie, a freelancer disperses into thin air like the victims of the uber-blue Oscar Isaac in X-Men: Apocalypse.

In case you can’t tell, I’ve had it up to here with the way prominent writers (whose words can influence) talk about modern film. There are actual people who get paid actual money to write actual things arguing that just because the main character wears a cape there’s somehow intrinsically less artistic value in play than in a “prestige” film. To both assume and have the audacity to publish a story saying that James Gunn and his crew or The Russo bros and their crew somehow don’t put in the careful thought/effort into their work that, say, Richard Linklater puts into his is not only journalism putrid enough to make even the English teacher supervising the school paper quiver, but it also implies a horribly pompous mindset that continues to plague discussion of film with its dividing lines. If you don’t like these too-big-to-fail franchises, you’re a hipster. If you do, you’re sheep. This is a binary that shouldn’t exist given the plethora of wildly different but equally worthy films being made in this era. But this binary does exists.

I hope I’m not coming off as the contentious fanboy who trolls comment sections, a type that exists in drones and is equally responsible for the aforementioned binary as the credentialed journos who grind my gears. That is NOT me. In fact, I’m not really a “fanboy” at all. I’ve read maybe four or five comic books in my life. My affection for superheroes stems directly from being a 23 year-old cinephile who grew up during the golden age of comic book movies. I couldn’t personally care less if a film diverts from the history of these characters in print. But I do care about the movies being good, and care about them being recognized as such when they are (without any sort of “it’s good for a popcorn movie” type asterisk). Personal anecdote, over.

On some level, I pity those who get vocally frustrated when these movies do well and continue to add the best in the business to their respective rosters. Loathing something so prevalent must be tiring, and not just because of the internet. You go the grocery store and you’re likely to see Captain America on some food packaging. Watch the news at all during the summer and you’ll be bombarded with an influx of TV spots for various film franchises. There are some very bad superhero movies. We’ve had two this year already. But Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and X-Men: Apocalypse aren’t bad because they’re about superheroes. They’re plain bad. They just happen to be about superheroes. In fact, part of the reason those two movies struggled to resonate is because they so obviously tried break the loose mold Marvel Studios has created. Then again, Deadpool took a strap-on to that mold and bashed it into pieces on its way to $763M and warm reception. I know nothing and very few read my words. Don’t listen to me. I can be a jaundiced asshole online without shifting the pendulum. That’s not the case for someone who writes for a prominent publication. With great power comes gr- okay, that’s too easy.

As the Marvel Cinematic Universe pushes into “Phase 3”, it’s added a tremendous amount of acting talent to its already prolific armory. I’d like to run through some of the recent additions, for no other reason than to laugh to myself thinking about the folks who are genuinely bothered by franchise filmmaking.

Let’s start with Black Panther, the upcoming (February, 2018) take on the first notable African-American superhero, whom we saw Chadwick Boseman portray to general acclaim in Captain America: Civil War. Ryan Coogler is directing and co-writing. The most exciting young filmmaker in the game, Coogler has shown the ability to find the naked, human element in his characters; whether in the poetically ominous Fruitvale Station or the inspirational Creed. His regular collaborator Michael B. Jordan (there’s Wallace, String) is attached to the film, reportedly as a villain. Lupita Nyong’o will play a “love interest”. Coogler, Boseman, Jordan, Nyong’o. That’s an awful lot of young black talent for a film in a genre that’s been a punching bag when it comes to diversity in film. To make matters worse for the self-serving old white journalists (and young white tweeters) who love to blast old white industry vets when it’s convenient, Coogler has publicly called this his “most personal film”.

How about that Doctor Strange cast? There’s Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, but also Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams, Michael Stuhlbarg, Mads Mikkelsen, and TILDA MOTHERFUCKING SWINTON. Marvel has been met with criticism for casting Swinton, a white female, as the Ancient One (a historically Asian male character). I find this hilarious, since the Ancient One has been called a racist character for years. So we went from the Ancient One being a problematic Asian character, to it being problematic that a white lady is playing the problematic Asian character. Everything is problematic. The amount of times I’ve read the word “problematic” over the last three years is problematic. We’re problem addicts when it comes to using the word “problematic”.

Spider-Man: Homecoming stars Tom Holland as the title character and will feature Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark/Iron Man (Downey deserves back-end points on every MCU movie, by the way). It also features Marisa Tomei as Aunt May and, if reports prove true, Michael Keaton as the villain (probably some iteration of The Vulture). This is music to my ears. Keaton, who should’ve won an Oscar for Birdman, a film harshly critical of what these franchises do to talent, will be putting on a bird costume and flying around trying to kill Spider-Man. Fucking beautiful (coming from someone who LOVED Birdman).

Thor: Ragnarok is set to have quite the cast as well. Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddelston, Anthony Hopkins, and Idris Elba all return. We’ll also see Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. But here’s the real kicker. Cate Blanchett -the queen herself, the most prolific actress of her generation- will be playing the villain Hela. Jeff Goldblum, whose presence makes everything more enjoyable, is attached as well. Karl Urban, Tessa Thompson. Quite the posse of players for this one.

I’ll conclude by, in essence, admitting that the joke’s on me. Despite this 1,600 word rant about hollow film coverage, I read all of it because I’m obsessed. Page views drive the van. As far as AdSense goes, if I click on an article and am blown away by its nuanced look at something it’s the same damn thing as me gagging at the first use of the term “popcorn movie” and closing my browser. Pompous prose may be the bane of my existence but at least it’s part of my existence.

Review: ‘Captain America: Civil War’, a triumphant exercise in popcorn moviemaking.

Captain America: Civil War will be a beneficiary of comparison, contextualization, recency bias, etc. It was always going to be that. Following up the glorified layover that was Avengers: Age of Ultron and a certain non-Marvel hero v hero movie whose title shall not be mentioned in these musings, Civil War, despite the occasional flaw and branding obligation, feels like a whiff of fresh air. It’s not the best MCU movie, a claim our natural tendency as fans to revert to tall talk has already brought about in waves. It’s not even the best Captain America movie. But it’s sure as hell better than Age of Ultron (and that other movie, too). That’s really all the matters, in terms of immediacy.

Sold as Captain America 3, and directed by Joe and Anthony Russo of Captain America 2, Civil War is really more like Avengers 2.5. The films greatest achievement comes from a script (by Winter Soldier scribes Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus) that manages to give every character legitimate motivations, or reasons to pick a side. The root of the conflict is something Marvel has been building to since The Avengers. Our favorite crime fighting team has caused an awful lot of collateral damage over the course of the twelve movies leading into Civil War. Cities have been destroyed, even lifted into the sky. Aliens and Gods have made humanity feel vulnerable. People have died. The world’s response is a document that would see the Avengers operate only under UN supervision. Tony Stark feels guilty and sees the agreement as an imperfect but necessary compromise. Steve Rogers, the Star-Spangled Banner Man, does not. He believes freedom is essential in making this collective of superdudes and dudets effective peacekeepers. Also, the fact the world is blaming Cap’s best friend turned brainwashed assassin Bucky Barnes (a never-better Sebastian Stan) for the murder of a Wakandan king factors in.

Cap and Iron Man, who’ve always had a contentious albeit humorous cinematic relationship, can’t see eye to eye. The rest of the crew chooses sides for different reasons. War Machine (Don Cheadle) sides with Stark because they’re homies. Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) sides with Cap because she’s partially at fault for the casualties brought on by the latest Avengers-induced explosion. I won’t give too much more away in terms of plotting, since the quiet moments that lay the groundwork for the loud ones are some of the finest moments of the movie. There’s also some necessary hoopla about Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) wanting revenge because his family was killed in Age of Ultron. The movie tries to set him up as the puppet master behind the hero beef, but it doesn’t work. He’s only there to give you someone to root against so you don’t have to pick a side. That’s one of a few ways the movie doesn’t show any true courage.

There are five or six extended action sequences over the films 147-minute runtime, some of which work better than others. Early moments are intentionally made to look a bit defective, with that Paul Greengrass shaky-cam/quick cut method at play. It works because the movie is very kinetic, but can still lose you at times. The movies first hour manages to thrill while also continuing the character work that Age of Ultron started but gave up on. On top of that, the film introduces two of the most iconic characters in the Marvel oeuvre with Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland). Again, this is all in the first hour. It’s remarkable.

Marvel diehards will be thrilled to see the new faces, as casting and costume decisions appear to be homeruns. Black Panther/T’Challa joins the fight out of revenge. He wants Bucky for killing his father. Some close-quarters fight scenes with T’Challa look great. He’s a menace. But it’s out of costume where Boseman really shines, showing this strange regal vulnerability perfect for a Simba-esque character mourning the loss of his father but aware of his new responsibilities. The Ryan Coogler-directed Black Panther movie is scheduled for February 6, 2018. Circle the date now.

Tom Holland brings the youthful exuberance to Peter Parker that Andrew Garfield failed to. His character is A LOT like John Boyega’s Finn in Star Wars (he sneaks in a solid Empire Strikes Back reference, too). He’s in over his head when fighting alongside the Iron Mans and Captain Americas of the world. He responds by rising up, and saying hilarious things. The scene Downey and Holland share is the films funniest moment and implies that the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming (which will feature Downey) could be the most humorous entry yet. As much as Peter Parker idolizes the man recruiting him, he also a book report due tomorrow, ya know?

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is also in tow. So are Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The balancing act that is the Civil War script proves that the problem with inferior superhero smorgasbords isn’t simply an issue of quantity. With the exception of Hawkeye –who’s struggled to find a worthwhile role in this franchise- no hero feels unnecessary (the same can’t be said for Daniel Bruhl’s Baron Zemo). Every personal arc is fully formed and, if not concluded, left in a position hinting at fascinating new developments in future films. This can be frustrating, but you simply have to accept it with these shared universes. The idea of a shared universe may create speedbumps for certain films, but it’s also the idea that allows something like the “airport scene” in Civil War to exist.

That scene, the most impressive individual action sequence Marvel’s had so far, is the type of shit a six-year old dreams up with his action figures, and I mean that as praise. The Russos make sure to jump around and really have everyone fight everyone else. Each character is given a chance to show off their powers in a cool way, and there’s this freeform feel to the whole thing. There are a couple of major surprises during the scene as well, one of which shows off the digital artists to great results.

I haven’t said much about Downey and Evans yet, which is strange because they’re obviously the two marquee players in Civil War. It’s interesting how these characters have changed since Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, respectively. Both have seen their strong individual personalities –Stark’s narcissistic flamboyance, Rogers’ almost pitiful sense of righteousness- slowly broken down by the emotional/physical wear and tear they’ve experienced. We all know what Downey’s done for Iron Man and vice versa, but Evans’ work as Cap in these movies has been egregiously overlooked. There’s always a certain campiness that’s going to follow a guy named “Captain America”, but Evans finds a way to seem vulnerable despite his physicality and, to quite Tony, “perfect teeth”. Cap has never been less confident in his morals than he is here, and Evans’ shattered looks fuel that feeling, visually. The quality acting all-around is integral to this movie, since there’s so much happening that there’s little room for expository dialogue. Also, the Cap-Bucky-Falcon bromance appears to be a thing. Get these men a sitcom.

I don’t entirely “get” the ending to Civil War, and that’s really what prevents it from being a truly perfect blockbuster in my eyes. There’s a moment when one major character pushes another major character all the way to the brink, only for them to stop and figuratively hug it out. And there’s a cheesy bow around all of it in the form of a handwritten letter (dear screenwriters, it’s 2016, stop using handwritten letters as a plot device). I do think this movie didn’t quite have the balls to commit to a universe-changing ending, but at the same time, I understand it. These movies work, generally, on both popular and critical levels. And there’s a two-part Avengers movie set to start shooting next year, so only so much can be done to switch things up.

Captain America: Civil War brings with it everything any reasonable moviegoer could expect; great action, hero comradery, a story without lulls. This movie breezes through its bloated run time in ways that [redacted] could not because it was too concerned with self-seriousness and structuring every scene as if where a finale. We love I rank things. I love to rank things. Time (and another viewing or two) will tell where Civil War ranks in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it’s certainly near the top. It’s hard to understand the “superhero fatigue” journalists fill columns with when the movies are this good.

 

Predicting the Box Office Take of 2016’s Superhero Movies

As Fantastic Four showed us last year, superhero blockbusters are not automatic hits. That movie, plagued by well-documented production problems and a considerable lack of overall buzz, went on to do just $168M. Given that it cost $120M to make, and at least another $50M to market, it was an unmitigated flop for 20th Century Fox. It scored 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. The studio scrapped plans for a sequel (despite a talented young cast) just two months after its release. While movies based on popular comic-book characters have become the Hollywood’s bread-and-butter, they’re far from guaranteed successes just because they get made.

With that being said, for every Fantastic Four there is a Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that did a whopping $773M despite lacking an established movie star or large comics following (not coincidentally, Chris Pratt has become an A-lister and the team is now a popular one for Marvel across many mediums). The fact that Guardians made $100M more than Man of Steel remains maybe the most shocking piece of box office trivia from this decade so far. Credit the Marvel machine. Credit the brilliant marketing campaign that made sure you knew the movie would be unlike any other. Credit the critical acclaim and word-of-mouth. Whatever. If Fantastic Four proved that not all superhero movies are destined to be smash hits, Guardians proved that any superhero movie CAN be a smash hit.

On to 2016. We’re on tap to get SIX high-profile superhero movies this year (maybe seven if Gambit comes out on time, which I doubt). And the lineup is very interesting. We’re getting an R-rated superhero movie, the first real connected movies in the DC/Warners Extended Universe, a bunch of “new” X-Men, and a Marvel movie that somehow includes more characters than Avengers: Age of Ultron. I’m here to look ahead and forecast how these movies will fare. I use forecast instead of “project” because a real projection requires the use of tracking and with the exception of Deadpool and maybe Batman v Superman, it’s too early to rely on the tweeters to quantify the buzz surrounding these movies.

Let’s start, in order of when they’re coming out.

Deadpool

Release Date: February 12th

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Director: Tim Miller

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, TJ Miller, Gina Carano

Easily the most interesting case study this year. Deadpool will look to appease the cult following of its main character, including the graphic violence, vulgar language, sexuality, and breaking-the-fourth-wall narrative that comes with him. To the joy of fans everywhere, the movie is a hard “R”. That’s exactly what makes it so interesting. This movie is technically another installment in the X-Men series but it’s not really selling itself as such. Its marketing campaign, based almost entirely off internet jokes/memes and fake billboards, is the most 21st-Centuryish I’ve ever seen. The studio has made it very clear this is a movie aimed at adults, and while that makes fans of the character happy, it (probably) limits its ultimate box-office take.

Some other R-rated superhero movies can help us forecast Deadpool to a certain extent. The Blade trilogy, which was ahead of its time I might add, averaged $138M per movie. Blade as a character is not as big as Deadpool, and Wesley Snipes 10 years ago was not as famous as Ryan Reynolds is right now (I think? This movie will also function as case study for Reynolds’ draw outside of rom-coms, let’s not forget R.I.P.D. and The Green Lantern). The Punisher did just $54M, but it was a much smaller movie with a more specific audience than most. Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, which got the full-service blockbuster treatment, did $185M (a less-than-stellar figure given its $130M production budget). Kick-Ass, perhaps the film that most closely resembles Deadpool in tone, was a surprising hit, doing $96M against $30M. If Deadpool receives positive reviews, which it appears that it will judging by the words of those who have seen it, I’m pretty confident it’ll shatter the numbers of all these movies. By how much is the question.

People have been talking about this film ever since it began REAL development in 2010. From then on, every bit of promotion and news surrounding the film has been met with universal acclaim. People want to see this movie, and the diehard Deadpool fans who have wanted him to materialize on-screen for two decades are likely to see it multiple times. When you look at its competition, there’s not much in the way. The Coen Bros’ Hail, Caesar! will be in its second weekend, but that’s not the type of movie that shares much of an audience with Deadpool. Kung Fu Panda 3 will still be on a roll, but again, extremely different target audience, obviously. There will be a few date-night movies out but AGAIN, completely different audience. Honestly, the biggest threat to Deadpool is probably Zoolander No. 2, and that movie isn’t tracking well (it’s been greatly mishandled by Paramount). It’s also President’s Day weekend. Fucking Ghost Rider managed to open at $52M over those four days.

It should be noted that Deadpool not being released in 3D could potentially hurt it as well, and I’m a bit worried about its overseas appeal. But it still appears to have the making of an R-rated smash. Deadpool is also rumored to have a huge presence at this year’s Super Bowl, which, in theory, could put it on the radar of potential viewers not so well-versed in internet culture.

I think Deadpool is going to open big, and the buzz surrounding it will keep it in play for a month or so. The blizzards will have cleared up.

Estimated (4-day) Weekend Domestic Opening: $64 million

Estimated Final Worldwide Total: $377 million


Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

batman-v-superman-trinity

Release Date: March 25th

Studio: Warner Bros

Director: Zack Synder

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

This is the big one, right? The first time the caped crusader and the man of steel have shared a movie screen (plus, it’ll introduce Wonder Woman, Cyborg, The Flash, and Aquaman, all of whom are scheduled to have solo movies in the next four years). If you’ve followed this blog at all, you’re well aware I’m not fan of Zack Snyder, Superman as a whole, or Man of Steel. So while I like much of the cast here, the look of the footage in the trailers (photographed like Man of Steel, resembling a bad video game) give me serious doubts as to whether this movie will be any good. But that’s not the point of this post.

Obviously, BvS is going to be a hit. It’s one of those too-big-to-fail movies. Even if it’s bad, it’ll have a chance to cross $1B. But this movie cost over $200M to produce, and probably close to another $200M to market. There will be merchandising revenues, but for the film to be considered a success it has to do $800M, right? That’s basically a guarantee at this point. Early tracking data suggests it could cross a billion. While Man of Steel wasn’t as huge as the studio expected, it circulated the streaming and TV ranks for a couple years pretty heavily. It has fans. Adding Ben Affleck and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) should help, as will the fact that it’s being positioned as a must-see if you want to follow the DC movies moving forward.

The promotional material has made a clear attempt to appeal to those outside the typical comic-book movie audience (if such thing even exists anymore, given how popular most of these movies are). For the most part, it appears to be working. People are talking about this movie, even if some of the more serious fans are talking about it harshly. The Avengers did $207M domestically its opening weekend. This movie should come close to that, and its final take may come down to whether or not it’s any good.

Estimated Domestic Weekend Opening: $169M

Estimated Final Worldwide Total: $1.24 billion


Captain America: Civil War

Release Date: May 6th

Studio: Disney

Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Paul Rudd, Paul Bettany, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Emily VanCamp, Jeremy Renner, Frank Grillo, Daniel Bruhl, William Hurt

On top of all the established popular characters in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Captain America: Civil War will attempt to successfully bring Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) into the fold (his solo movie scheduled for 2018 will be directed by RYAN FUCKING COOGLER). This is a guaranteed hit. Avengers: Age of Ultron underperformed and still made $1.4B. The Russo Bros, who did Captain America: Civil War, probably the best movie in the MCU, are helming this one.

Here’s what makes this interesting. Despite reportedly giving Downey Jr. a record-setting deal to do the movie, the promotional material thus far has sold that movie as “Cap 3” rather than “Avengers 3” (it’s very early, the TV spots aren’t really there yet, probably due to the presence of BvS). The main human conflict of the story, based on what we have so far, is Cap’s relationship with Bucky/Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). I personally have no problem with Disney making this “Cap 3” (mostly because I liked Cap 2 much more than Age of Ultron). Everybody already knows that this movie will see a gigantic number of heroes group up and fight each other, so maybe they’ve already sold that just by putting “Civil War” in the title. It’s just strange to see Downey, unquestionably the biggest star in this movie, being relegated to second fiddle. I’m sure that won’t be the case in the actual movie, but it’s weird right now. Could people seeing this as Cap 3 instead of an Avengers movie hold it back? Cap 1 did $370m while Cap 2 did $714M. Those are very respectable figures given the positon of the MCU at their respective times, but you have to assume Disney is hoping this one breezes past a billion (given that, like BvS, it’ll likely cost $500M to make/market/distribute once it’s all said and done).

I think it’ll be fine. A billion dollars seems like its floor. It might end up coming down to whether more casual moviegoers are getting tired of the MCU (and judging by the number of trailer views, they aren’t). While internet tracking at this point says there’s more interest in BvS, much of that likely has to do with the fact that Disney hasn’t fully launched their campaign for Civil War yet, and they don’t have try as hard because folks are well aware of the MCU already.

Estimated Domestic Opening Weekend: $176 million

Estimated Final Worldwide Total: $1.29 billion


X-Men: Apocalypse

Release Date: May 27th

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Director: Bryan Singer

Starring: James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Michael Fassbender, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till

The last X-Men movie, Days of Future Past, also directed by Bryan Singer, did $748M on its way to becoming the highest grosser in the series. I don’t think the newest entry is going to beat that. My reasoning:

  • It comes out just three weeks after Captain America: Civil War, two weeks after Matthew McConaughey’s Civil War drama The Free State of Jones, and one week after Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising. It also comes out the same day, Memorial Day weekend, as Alice Through the Looking Glass (the last Alice movie did over a billion). The May slate is loaded. There’s a ton of competition.
  • The last X-Men movie really played up the “converging of two timelines” shtick with all the stars to boot, including fan favorite Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). He’s not in this one.
  • Reaction from diehard fans to some of the stills released has been very negative. They’ll still get in line, but will they bring their friends?
  • The two prettiest faces in the movie, Jennifer Lawrence and Oscar Isaac, will be blue most of the time. WHERE’S THE SEX APPEAL. You comic diehards may not think this matters, but to most, it certainly does.
  • X-Men: First Class, despite being (imo) the best movie in the whole series, only did $353M, and it’s the closest thing to Apocalypse as a business model.

So while I’m a bit more bearish on this movies draw than most, obviously it’s still going to make big bucks. But being opposite Alice scares me, a lot.

Estimated Domestic Weekend Opening: $67 million

Estimated Final Worldwide Total: $597 million


 

Suicide Squad

Release Date: August 5th

Director: David Ayer

Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney

DC’s most famous team of antiheros are coming to big screen, and helming the project is none other than the great David Ayer (End of Watch, Fury). The cast looks great, specifically Robbie as Harley Quinn. Every single piece of promotional material released for the film thus far has been lauded by fans, and the presence of Will Smith and Jared Leto (as the Joker) should help this appeal to a wider audience (also, Batman is almost surely in it). If it’s as good as I think it’s going to be, the buzz for its 2nd and 3rd weekends will be huge.

An interesting box office storyline with this one is the draw of Will Smith. He hasn’t had a hit since Men In Black 3, and that felt like more of a last-effort cash grab than anything fresh. There was a time when Smith was the biggest movie star on the planet. He could carry non-franchise movies to big openings off his name alone. Now, he’s relying on a franchise ensemble movie to resurrect his stardom. Concussion was a bomb, Focus did okay. The thing is, the marketing campaign for this film doesn’t appear to be focusing on Smith all that much. It’s all about Robbie as Harley and Leto as the Joker.

Suicide Squad selling itself as an alternative superhero movie should help in a market with so many superhero movies to choose from. There’s a significant amount of internet buzz for the film, but it’s too early to pull much from it.

Estimated Domestic Weekend Opening: $101 million

Estimated Final Worldwide Total: $762 million


Doctor Strange

Release Date: November 4th

Studio: Disney

Director: Scott Derrickson

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, Michael Stuhlbarg

Marvel has gotten a bit experimental with their attempts at introducing new characters into their cinematic universe. You had Guardians of the Galaxy (smash hit) and Ant-Man (relative smash hit), and now we’re looking ahead to Doctor Strange, a film that appears to have the makings of a psychedelic-horror epic, with a true horror auteur directing. As Guardians proved, any Marvel movie can do huge numbers if it’s good and the marketing is right. There are many reasons to believe that Doctor Strange will do just as well.

The biggest reason is of course Benedict Cumberbatch. Marvel has not seen a star of his caliber step into a title role. Marvel made Downey Jr., Pratt, Hemsworth, and Evans the megastars they are today. Cumberbatch is already an established star and he has a lot of overseas appeal as well. Rounding out the cast are some critically acclaimed actors and current Oscar-nominee Rachel McAdams. These names alone will put some people in the seats who may not otherwise go see a Marvel movie.

More so than any other superhero movie this year, Doctor Strange needs to actually be good in order to be successful. All we have to go off right now is some concept art and a still of Cumberbatch in costume. The title character is far from the most popular in the Marvel world and there will be some people thrown off by what this movie tries to do. With that being said, it seems like a given that this movie will tie together a lot of the space/magic stuff happening in the MCU, hopefully positioning it as essential viewing for Marvel fans (unlike Ant-Man). Ultimately, I think it’ll come close to what Guardians did.

Estimated Domestic Weekend Opening: $78 million

Estimated Final Worldwide Total: $730 million

Channing Tatum’s Gambit has been rumored to be on tap for a 2016 release, but it hasn’t even started shooting yet. It didn’t even hire its director (the great Doug Liman) until two months ago.

 

 

Review: Marvel shrinks its scope, wins again with ‘Ant-Man’

Ant-Man was always destined to go down as one of the great “what ifs” in the Marvel canon, and little of that has to do with the actual film. Edgar Wright, the brilliant satirist behind Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, was originally tapped to write and direct the project. Along with writing partner Joe Cornish, Wright drew up three drafts of the script and even shot some test footage. By all accounts, it was Wright’s vision that convinced Marvel this weird character could actually carry a blockbuster in the first place. But just months before filming was set to kick-off, Wright left the project, citing “creative” differences. The script was re-done (though Wright and Cornish still receive a story credit) and Peyton Reed (Yes Man, The Break-Up) was hired to direct. To many fans, myself included, Ant-Man already seemed to be shaping up as a “what could’ve been” before production even began.

Luckily for the loyal legion of Marvel fans whose recyclable interests have made this shared universe possible, Ant-Man is quite good on a number of levels.

Paul Rudd stars as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. After getting out of jail (for robbery, errrrr…thievery) he’s not exactly dumbfounded to learn that there’s little out there for him. His daughter lives with ex-wife (Judy Greer) and her cop boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale). Despite the fact that he possesses master’s degree in mechanical engineering, he can’t hold a job, even on at Baskin Robbins, due to his record. So when presented with an opportunity for redemption, Scott doesn’t hesitate. That opportunity comes in the form of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), the inventor and original wearer of the Ant-Man technology, who wants Scott to don the suit and break into Pym’s company so he can steal the same technology from Pym’s former protégé turned villain Darren Cross/Yellowjacket (Corey Stoll). Being inside the suit allows one to shrink, which also gives them super-strength, and to control different varieties of ants. There are other beats to the characters and story, different individual melodramas and details, but that’s an abridged version of this outlandish premise.

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The reason Ant-Man works is because it’s fully aware of this preposterousness and not afraid to mock itself (very much like another big movie this summer). There’s a moment when Pym essentially fits all the films exposition into a two-minute bit, explaining the technology and conflict to Scott. It’s lazy screenwriting, but Rudd saves the scene by responding, with that trademark smirk, “why don’t you just call the Avengers?” A lot of similarly mindful jokes are packed in, many of them likely due to Rudd’s involvement (he helped touch-up the script).

Rudd is a treat as the titular hero. You expect an actor like Rudd to bring his sardonic quibbling’s to a superhero role, much like Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Pratt have both done in Marvel films, but Rudd is more than just a funnyman here. In the films first act, when Scott Lang is a bruised and empty criminal, Rudd does a fine job capturing his apprehensions. This is key, because, outside of Rudd, the first half of Ant-Man is shockingly boring. We don’t get a spectacular action set piece to kick things off, nor is the film really an origin story. There’s a lot of exposition, a lot of snooze inducing daddy-daughter drama between Pym and Hope (Evangeline Lilly), and an all-around lack of conflict; as its clear early-on that the story is building up to the semi-climactic heist. When Rudd isn’t the physical and thematic focus of any particular moment in Ant-Man, it’s just not all that interesting. Corey Stoll gets a surprising amount of screen time from the onset before he technically even becomes a villain. I appreciate the effort, but like the dynamic between Pym and his daughter, any extended sequences with the supporting characters in the beginning of the film just make you want Rudd back on screen.

While it’s far from flawless, the best moments in Ant-Man rank amongst Marvel’s finest to date. There is some truly beautiful special effects work. The smaller scope doesn’t prevent Reed from proving he can handle action sequences. When Ant-Man shrinks, his environments are incredibly detailed. Bath water functions as a tsunami, certain ants look like giant monsters, and a toy train set is made to look like the transcontinental railroad. All of these digital worlds are complimented by some sharp editing work, as Ant-Man’s whole power comes from the way he can switch from normal to miniscule at the blink of an eye. When Ant-Man finally goes “sub-atomic” he floats through this gorgeous alternate reality resembling a kaleidoscope. This is a daring sequence given that it comes in the middle of the films climax and gives pause to the violence, but the visual artists nail it. It may be a touchy subject in the movie business, but films like Ant-Man show that, in some cases, digital photography really is the way to go. I did not see the film in 3D, but much of it was clearly shot with post-conversion in mind. I’d recommend forking over the extra $2 for some plastic glasses.

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Some are calling Ant-Man a “heist” movie. I view it as a satire of heist movies. This is most likely the aspect of Wright’s original story that remains intact. When the clichéd heist team is assembled, it’s done for laughs. David Dastmalchian, T.I., and most notably Michael Peña make up a fine tripod of comedic relief. Peña has long been one of Hollywood’s under-utilized comedic actors (he was hilarious on HBO’s Eastbound & Down). Here, Peña plays Ant-Man’s former cellmate turned roommate turned heist partner (he actually signed a three-film contract with Marvel). The film steps out of its own universe for two extended sequences that allow Peña to mock stereotypes of his own Mexican heritage when it comes to storytelling. Not only are these moments the funniest in the film, but it’s also refreshing to see a director confident enough to do something like this in the middle of an action blockbuster. With that being said, those moments certainly feel like they came from the mind of Wright, not Reed.

There are a few cameos in Ant-Man that attempt to connect it to Marvel’s larger story. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Ant-Man have brief skirmish when the latter needs to break into the Avengers facility to get some piece of equipment. In the films opening flashback sequence, a young Hank Pym talks about his technology with familiar faces Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). One of the films lasting images comes at the start, where the digital artists do some imposing and brush work to make Michael Douglass look thirty years younger. They do a respectable job using the same technology that was used to put Chris Evans’ face on a scrawny body in the first Captain America film. Douglas looked re-born during the scene. I couldn’t stop thinking of Gordon Gekko.

There are no infinity stones in Ant-Man. Also sitting this one out are any aliens, gods, or super-villains intent on world destruction. The overall scope of the film is insignificant compared to what happened earlier this year in Avengers: Age of Ultron. And that’s what makes Ant-Man so enjoyable (it is a MUCH better film than Age of Ultron, by the way). You don’t have to keep track of who’s who or what’s already unfolded in this universe. It’s escapist entertainment in its purest form, and probably the most pleasurable film of the 2015 summer blockbuster season.

The greatest accomplishment of Ant-Man is that -despite the director drama surrounding its development- the film successfully introduced a peculiar character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Rudd will reprise the role in next years Captain America: Civil War and, judging by early numbers and audience reaction, there’s a good chance Ant-Man will get its own sequel at some point. Also, stay after the credits (duh). There’s a very progressive and self-referential/critical moment at the end that will have you whispering “finally” right along with Evangeline Lilly.

Ant-Man is far from Marvel’s biggest film, but its sense of self and impressive effects work make it one of the studios stronger offerings.

 

 

 

 

All 11 movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ranked.

On Friday, Ant-Man will open across the country. The film, the 12th in the acclaimed Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and final in Marvel’s “Phase 2”, doesn’t project as a billion-dollar entity, but Marvel’s name alone should carry it to at least a $60M domestic opening. The MCU will be turning a corner moving forward by adding a plethora of new characters including Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Captain Marvel, and the Inhumans. Before looking ahead, I’ll look back and give my personal hierarchy of all eleven films the franchise has released thus far.

A few notes:

  • I AM considering, to an extent, each film within the larger context of the MCU. There are simply too many tie-ins in all of them not to. How a film contributes to the larger picture matters.
  • I am NOT considering the comic books in any way. If a film makes serious changes to a story or look of a classic character, I don’t care. Cinema is a completely different storytelling medium and certain changes are necessary.
  • At different points in time, my “rankings” of these films have been different. But after a little more thought and having re-watched every film over the last few months, I’m pretty damn sure these are my final answers.

Let’s start from the back with the one you probably forgot about, for good justifiable reasons.

#11) The Incredible Hulk

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Year: 2008

Director: Louis Leterrier

Global Box Office: $263 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 67%/61

Best Quote: “You know, I know a few techniques that could help you manage that anger effectively”

What’s so frustrating about The Incredible Hulk within the larger context of the MCU is that, despite its many flaws, it feels like the best Hulk film Hollywood is capable of making. It may very well be impossible to explore the character of Bruce Banner while also saving enough time for the green guy to smash things. It’s a difficult contrast. Ang Lee went with a slower, more character-driven tone in his extremely polarizing 2003 telling, whereas this entry from French filmmaker Louis Leterrier ramps up the action at the expense of Bruce Banner. Perhaps there’s a balance somewhere in the middle that could be aided by modern motion capture. But the fact that the folks at Marvel Studios haven’t given any indication that they plan to take the character forward in the cinematic medium suggests that they’ve given up.

Edward Norton was a fine Bruce Banner, just not a great Hulk. He does an adequate job showing Banner’s fear and self-doubt, but simply lacks the facial girth to preform the motion capture necessary. The same goes for Tim Roth as Abomination here, and the visual effects artists had to use more CGI than is ideal to make the action sequences work. Those sequences, cut together briskly by a team of SIX editors, do everything they can to hide the fact that this version of the Hulk and his enemy just didn’t look that good. Elsewhere in the cast, William Hurt is great as Gen. Thunderbolt Ross, a role he’ll be reprising in Captain America: Civil War. This is actually a well-acted movie, save for the predictable struggle from Liv Tyler (we’re done giving her roles in blockbusters, right?).

I appreciate the decision by Leterrier and screenwriter Zak Penn to start the film right in the midst of the action rather than give us another “checks all the boxes” type origin story. I want to like The Incredible Hulk. I really do. Critiquing it in any way seems futile and unfair to those involved. But I just can’t get on board with the Hulk as a movie headliner. Not yet.

#10) Thor: The Dark World

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Year: 2013

Director: Alan Taylor

Global Box Office: $645 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 65%/54

Best Quote: “It’s not that I don’t love our little talks, it’s just….I don’t love them.”

Thor: The Dark World is a movie that’s quite literally, and on every level, saved by Loki. Tom Hiddleston is exceptional in the role, speaking with this drawn-out cadence that makes his sense of self and power seem even more warped. This was his third appearance in the MCU. Not only did the character save the day within the plot, but Hiddleston saved what is an otherwise forgettable movie due his hilarious brotherly/mortal enemy banter with Thor. The events that went down prior to this one in The Avengers add extra fuel to this relationship. Unfortunately, the Thor-Loki dynamic is the only aspect of the film that even pretends what went down in New York actually happened. The rest of Thor: The Dark World is insignificant and feels compulsory within the universe’s larger story despite the reveal of the Aether as one of the all-important “Infinity Stones” (Marvel seem to be putting all their plotting eggs in this basket).

Alan Taylor, making his transition from TV director, surprisingly nails key action sequences such as the final fight and the escape from Asgard. But the rest of the film doesn’t establish its own tone, or even conform to the tone we’ve come to expect from the MCU. The sequences on earth with Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings aren’t as funny as those in the first film, and once Portman’s character joins Thor in Asgard, the screenwriters squandered the opportunity to pry good jokes out of this change in scenery. When Loki isn’t speaking or Thor isn’t swinging his hammer, this is a boring movie.

As villains, Malekith (Christopher Eccleston) and the rest of the Dark Elves aren’t exactly the most interesting foes. The first film and opening sequences of this one do such a nice job establishing the different realms of space within this universe, and then it feels as if our attention is supposed to focus in on the least captivating of all the different types at play. Malekith had no clear motivations, no connection to Thanos or anybody else, no real purpose other than to be another scary-looking dude in possession of a mysterious and powerful space object. Thor: The Dark World is probably the most forgettable project that Marvel Studios has churned out. The fact that it’s still a damned entertaining action-comedy is a testament to the abilities of the cast and the all-around aura surrounding the MCU.

#9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Year: 2015

Director: Joss Whedon

Global Box Office: $1.38 billion (and counting)

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 74%/66

Best Quote: “The city is flying and we’re fighting an army of robots. And I have a bow and arrow. Nothing makes sense.”

As I’ve stated before, my gripes with Avengers: Age of Ultron rest more with Marvel’s larger ideas than this films actual execution. Joss Whedon, who admitted that this film made him very tired and frustrated, did everything he could. He crafted a genuinely funny script with a GREAT villain (thank you, James Spader) and loaded it with references (Pinocchio, Banksy, prima nocte). Whedon is of course capable of keeping scenes with tremendous amounts of CGI grounded, and he’s very good at placing his camera in the middle of the combat.

But much like Thor: The Dark World, this film felt, frankly, pointless and repetitive. Ultron may have been an interesting foil for our heroes, but when the climax hit and we saw an army attacking a city again, why are we supposed to care? It’s already been confirmed that everybody will be back for the next Avengers film, and we know all that really matters in terms of larger conflict are the infinity stones. Joss Whedon got tired making this film over a couple years. I got tired watching it over a couple hours. Also, Aaron Taylor-Johnson with a Russian accent. NEVER AGAIN.

With that said, I seem to deviate far from the accepted opinion when it comes to Avengers: Age of Ultron. Maybe I just have bad taste. Many of my favorite aspects of the film were the most universally panned. I really enjoyed the Bruce Banner-Natasha Romanoff romance. I found the quiet moments at Hawkeye’s house to be rewarding. The top moment in the entire movie for me was when all the character’s were joking around at the party. The action in this film, no matter how technically impressive, failed to captivate me because so little was really at stake. I understand that comic-book films are always going to be a bit repetitive in a “let’s save the world again” sort of way, but I just don’t get what made this film so appealing to the surprisingly large crowd that believes it’s better than the first. Maybe the introductions of a few new players was exciting. When we look back at Avengers: Age of Ultron years later as Marvel is well into “Phase 3”, I believe that this film will be viewed as little more than filler that happens to introduce a couple of fan favorites in the Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

 #8) Iron Man 2

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Year: 2010

Director: Jon Favreau

Global Box Office: $624 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 73%/57

Best Quote: “She is from legal and is potentially a very expensive sexual harassment lawsuit if you keep ogling her like that.”

In defense of the oft-criticized Iron Man 2

Mickey Rourke as primary villain Ivan Ranko/Whiplash, with a Russian accent only slightly better than Taylor-Johnson’s and his peculiar avian afición, proved to be laughable, I’ll admit that. But I’m pretty sure that being a bit laughable is the point of the character. He’s supposed to be absolutely fucking ridiculous. It ties back into another popular complaint about the Iron Man 2; that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., obviously) didn’t change at all from the first film. Again, isn’t that sort of the point?

Iron Man 2 was about Stark’s ego, an ego exemplified beautifully by Downey’s rampant sarcasm, and how that ego inspired enemies. Whether it be Ranko or rival weapons mogul Justin Hammer (the always great Sam Rockwell), it became abundantly clear that Stark would have to change his nature, at least slightly, moving forward. Rockwell’s Hammer was a unique creation that deviated heavily from the comics in a good way, and of course there’s the introduction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) into the universe. Johansson would prove to be a true scene-stealer for Marvel Studios moving forward. She’s more than a simple sidekick, and her contributions were integral to films such as The Avengers and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. She’s stated that her role in these films is essentially to spend countless hours with the stunt team both in pre-production and on set and then let them do their thing. It certainly pays off here, as her ass-kicking moment is the films best action sequence.

Another pleasant addition to Iron Man 2 was Don Cheadle replacing Terrance Howard as Col. Rhodes. Howard wasn’t bad in the role, but Cheadle has much sharper on-screen chemistry with Downey, and ultimately, that’s all that really matters for the character. Iron Man 2 is far from Marvel’s best film, but it’s also far the being the worst of the studios major productions.

#7) Iron Man

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Year: 2008

Director: Jon Favreau

Global Box Office: $585 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 93%/79

Best Quote: “They say the best weapon is the one you never have to fire. I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.”

The one that started it all is widely considered one of the studio’s best. While I disagree with that notion, there’s so much to love about Iron Man beyond the fact that it officially launched the universe.

It all starts with Downey Jr. His turn as the titular hero -with its unabashed arrogance and comedic quibbling- feels remarkably personal for an oft-troubled actor giving his take on a popular superhero. Downey experienced a remarkable career comeback by acting the same way he often does. It was a perfect piece of casting. Downey’s performance as Stark established a tone for the entire MCU, a tone that super-producer/Marvel president Kevin Fiege has made sure is matched in the studios other films, regardless of who the director is. Add Downey’s turn to some of the spectacular set pieces and genuinely compelling origin story at play in Iron Man, and you have a smash hit that launched the most successful film franchise of all time.

Iron Man is not perfect. Gwyenth Paltrow is tough to watch as Stark’s assistant/love interest Pepper Potts (though she’d do much better in later MCU films). She does too much with her eyes, and the script never gives her a chance to really do anything besides be there. It’s probably not Paltrow’s fault, but where the first Captain America and Thor films crafted impactful and interesting female players, Iron Man does the opposite. But this is all nit-picking. There’s a reason that Iron Man held the “best superhero film of all-time” billing for a few months until The Dark Knight came out; it’s really a great movie.

#6) Thor

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Year: 2011

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Global Box Office: $449 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 77%/57

Best Quote: “Is there a Renaissance fair in town?”

Even after the first two Iron Man films proved very successful, the MCU was still walking on shaky ground in terms of their larger plans. Thor, the film that essentially introduced “space” to the franchise, needed to do well. We needed to plausibly believe that a freakin’ Norse god could fit into this story. The space scenes needed to be impressive enough to carry the action components of the film, and the earth scenes needed to be charming enough to continue the lighthearted momentum of the previous films. Luckily for us, thanks to the steady direction of Kenneth Branagh and some great casting, they were.

I spent a few words singing Hiddleston’s praises as Loki earlier, so I’ll focus on former Aussie TV star turned “Sexiest Man Alive” Chris Hemsworth as Thor here. Much like Downey as Stark, it’s now impossible to imagine an actor other than Hemsworth as Thor. He simply looks the part, with his long blond hair and gigantic muscles. But Hemsworth has proved himself to be much more than a pretty boy. He’s grown as an actor both inside the MCU and out of it (tell me he wasn’t great in Rush). Hemsworth is very very funny. He does a great job of nailing the strange adjustment to earth. Have talented co-stars such as Portman and Stellan Skarsgård helps this transition.

There were a lot of complaints regarding how the moments on earth in Thor didn’t live up to the adrenaline rush provided by the spectacular space sequences. I don’t agree. Yes, some of the unique digital work done on Asgard and in the wormholes was thrilling, but I found all of the human interactions to be funny. Thor is a very difficult character to tackle given the fact that he’s from another planet. Branagh & Co. did a nice job.

#5) Captain America: The First Avenger

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Year: 2011

Director: Joe Johnston

Global Box Office: $371 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 79%/66

Best Quote: “I’m gonna need a rain check on that dance.”

The nostalgic feel of Captain America: The First Avenger made me so happy. I love the unapologetic patriotism. I love the intentionally campy training sequences. I love the 1940’s conservative flirting between Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell. While you’d expect the action to be scaled back a bit given the lack of technology in this context, it’s not. There are a lot of pretty explosions and well-staged stunts.

As an origin story, the film works because it’s interesting before Steve Rogers becomes Captain America. Dominic Cooper as Howard Stark and Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine provide both wisdom and comedic relief. The angry drill sergeant role sort of feels like it had to go to Tommy Lee Jones, right? And unlike in the some of the other MCU films, the “end of the world” stakes were more riveting in The First Avenger because they didn’t seem like retread and, you know, Nazis.

There are some complaints about the film regarding how the character of a Cap is a bit cheesy in modern times, with his strong sense of national pride and white or black morals. But that’s simply who Captain America is. If you’re looking for intelligent political commentary in a film, don’t choose one about a superhero who wears a red-white-and-blue suit and fights Nazis with a shield, yeesh. Captain America: The First Avenger is a refreshingly formulaic blockbuster, and still ranks as one of the best superhero films ever made.

#4) Iron Man 3

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Year: 2013

Director: Shane Black

Global Box Office: $1.2 billion

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 78%/62

Best Quote: “Is that all you got? A cheap trick and a cheesy one-liner?”…”Sweetheart, that could be the name of my autobiography.”

Maybe this is where I lose you. It’s generally accepted that the first Iron Man is the best of the trilogy. But my vote goes to the grim yet hilarious Iron Man 3. The decision to replace Favreau with writer/director Shane Black proved to be a wise calculated risk. Black’s trademark cynicism and wit was on full display, and it should come as no surprise that it brought the best out in Downey (an actor whose best performance came in Black’s 2005 classic Kiss Kiss Bang Bang).

There are plenty of twists in Iron Man 3, but what really keeps the film interesting is the way it explores the psyche of Tony Stark. Something had to change after the catastrophic events of The Avengers. So Black wrote a story that put Stark in a rough place, having to handle his own PTSD and attempting to develop a defense program that wouldn’t require him to personally suit-up and get involved in the carnage every time there’s a threat. This would, of course, indirectly lead to events in Avengers: Age of Ultron. But Iron Man 3 is far from a set-up film. At any given moment it can be spectacular, depressing, or charming (they frustrated some, but I LOVED the scenes between Downey and the kid- Ty Simpkins)

Ben Kingsley, Guy Pearce, James Badge Dale, and Rebecca Hall are all welcome additions to a cast that needed some new life. My only problem with Iron Man 3 is that the action sequences are very hit-or-miss. The destruction of Stark’s Malibu pad was engaging, as was the street fight filled with great one-liners. But the finale with the various suits was a bit messy from a visual perspective.

#3) Guardians of the Galaxy

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Year: 2014

Director: James Gunn

Global Box Office: $774 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 91%/76

Best Quote: “She has no idea. If I had a blacklight, this place would look like a Jackson Pollock painting.”

When I first saw Guardians of the Galaxy, I thought, “Now THAT was the best Marvel film I’ve ever seen”. I was laughing the whole time, happy to see Chris Pratt working as an action star, and surprised with how well Dave Bautista handled the comedic aspects of Drax the Destroyer. And yes, I streamed the soundtrack a million goddamn times.

But after repeated viewings, once you’re over the pure joy the film gives off, some serious flaws expose themselves. Ronan, as a primary villain, despite the talented Lee Pace, is very underwhelming once we see Thanos. In terms of story, Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from the typical “mysterious and powerful space object falls into the wrong hands” plotline. And despite some very impressive CGI work, the finale battle isn’t all that compelling since these heroes are most interesting when not fighting via spaceship.

Honestly, none of that really matters though. Guardians is hilarious. It is heartwarming. It is perfectly cast. The soundtrack consisting of relatively obscure late-60’s/early-70’s hits is more than simply a soundtrack. With the exception of one song (the Bowie one), James Gunn wrote them all into the script and told the cast, D.P. Ben Davis, and the large editing team to consider his selections on set and in post-production work. Somehow, the reliance on these songs worked. It gave some of the films craziest moments, like the prison escape, a more light-hearted tone; something that is essential considering that two of the main characters here are a talking raccoon and a walking tree. Sinking over $200M into a film about a gang of relatively unknown characters was a huge risk for Marvel Studios. They nailed it, and moving forward, the Guardians may very well be their most valuable entity.

#2) Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Year: 2014

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Global Box Office: $715 million

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 89%/70

Best Quote: “Hey, fellas. Either one of you know where the Smithsonian is? I’m here to pick up a fossil.”

Much like Iron Man 3 used Starks PTSD to create an interesting story in a post-Avengers world, Captain America: The Winter Soldier functioned as a throwback espionage thriller focusing on corruption within S.H.I.E.L.D. This stigma was aided by the referential casting of the great Robert Redford. The Russo Bros. -who will direct the Captain America: Civil War as well as the next two Avengers films- didn’t really too heavily on CGI, showing favor towards more practical effects and hand-to-hand combat. It was a welcome change, and a fitting one given that Cap 2 was more of a “who do you trust?” movie than an “end of the world” one.

There were a number of tremendous action sequences and set pieces, my two favorite being the attempted assassination of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson had more to do than ever here) and the shootout with the Winter Soldier in the middle of the highway. I also believe the nonsexual charisma between Cap and Black Widow gave both characters more depth than they had in previous films. Then there’s the addition of Anthony Mackie as Falcon; which on top of being the “first prominent black Hollywood superhero” was also just a really fun character to add to the team moving forward. His camaraderie with Cap is enjoyable. As far as I’m concerned, the more that Marvel uses Mackie moving forward, the better.

A common complaint about Captain America: The Winter Soldier is that the actual Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) was a relatively minor part of the movie, taking a background spot to the corruption angle. I found the films conflict and balance of screentime to be perfect, perhaps they should’ve just used a less misleading title. Though I do think the script did a fine job making the “mystery” surrounding identity of the Winter Soldier -Cap’s thought to be long-dead best friend Bucky Barnes- part of the movie. I love everything about the film and gave it serious consideration for the #1 spot. But, you know, The Avengers.

#1) The Avengers

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Year: 2012

Director: Joss Whedon

Global Box Office: $1.52 billion

Rotten Tomatoes/Metacritic: 92%/69

Best Quote: “If it’s all the same to you, I’ll have that drink now.”

The Avengers should’ve failed, both as an inventive piece of blockbuster promotion and as a singular film. You can’t expect the average movie-goer to wait patiently and fork over dollars while you tease the idea of a team (the less than outstanding box office figures of the first Hulk, Thor, and Cap films tell us that). You can’t pack in a bunch of characters into one film and find a way to realize them all (the travesty that was Spider-Man 3 told us that). Except…you can. At least when you have Joss Whedon at the helm.

What Whedon manages to do with both the dialogue and action scenes in the film is nothing short of remarkable. Every character has their own set of conflicts and quality zingers. During the fighting, Whedon’s camera moves around effortlessly and checks in on everybody. He uses perspective so well. We see where everyone is, what they’re doing, and how what they’re doing impacts the fight for the rest of the team. Every set piece is detailed and vast. The CGI never gets distracting. This is an even bigger accomplishment when you consider that the only prior film Whedon directed (Serenity) cost a mere $39M to make.

The Avengers not only changed Marvel movies moving forward, it changed superhero films in general. It’s success, and the continued success of the individual characters, has inspired DC/Warners to essentially take the same approach with their properties. Whether that team of filmmakers is capable of creating an expansive universe that brings with it the sheer entertainment of the MCU remains to be seen. The Avengers was culmination of everything in Marvel’s “Phase 1”, and the engine that drove everything in “Phase 2”. As the studio heads into “Phase 3”, The Avengers remains its most resounding success.

That’s all folks. I’ll probably see Ant-Man on Thursday or Friday and try and get up a review as soon as I have time, so check back later this week if you’re still unsure of whether or not to see the film.

Embracing the frivolous, unoriginal, and disappointing ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

 “The city is flying, there’s an army of robots, and I’m fighting with a bow-and-arrow. None of this makes any sense.”

There’s a telling moment that subtly rears its head during the climactic battle in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It happens in the midst of computer-generated urban destruction; the finest money can buy, the kind that’s so aesthetically impressive it becomes capable of tossing the proverbial invisibility cloak over a films more misguided efforts, the kind we’ve come to expect. We have writer/director Joss Whedon, through the voices of the classic characters he’s realized so vividly on screen, questioning the legitimacy of it all. By “it”, I’m of course referring to very franchise that’s made him a multi-millionaire. Whedon is almost laughing at us, as consumers, for buying into all of this religiously. When Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is attempting to convince Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) to fight for the good side, to channel her inner-Avenger, she asks him how he makes sense of this chaos. Whedon Hawkeye responds, “The city is flying, there’s an army of robots, and I’m fighting with a bow-and-arrow. None of this makes any sense.”

Like much of the films self-aware dialogue, a trademark of Whedon, the line induces laughter from the audience. But it also feels like Whedon’s swan song. He’s been in countless interviews saying how tired he is and how this film has nearly killed him. He is 100% done with Marvel now (the next two Avengers films will be handled by Joe & Anthony Russo, who did a fine job with Captain America: The Winter Solider). Whedon, the man who made this all possible by showing that you can in fact squeeze a bunch of heroes into a movie, became overwhelmed with what Age of Ultron was asking of him. And if Joss Whedon, the Tolstoy of geekdom, can’t find a way to make a film like Age of Ultron work without going insane; who can?

Who doesn't belong?
Who doesn’t belong?

The thing about Whedon is…he’s not really the comic-geek many make him out to be. Sure, he headed both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. He also claims to have been writing scripts for his favorite characters since he was 12, once being optioned to do Batman and Wonder Woman scripts for Warners (the studio ultimately went in a different direction). But Whedon is also very well-versed in and passionate about things that are, rightly or wrongly, considered higher art than Marvel movies. In between Avengers films, Whedon did a minimalist (and brilliant) modern recreation of Shakspeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, shot entirely in his own apartment. In Age of Ultron, when there’s blood smeared on a crime scene, he makes a reference to Banksy. When the characters talk about a length of time, Whedon/Iron Man says, “Like, Eugene O’Neil long?”. Whedon is ready to move on from Marvel bubblegum. It’s been made apparent through both his comments and the film itself.

Perhaps the reason Age of Ultron stressed Whedon out so much is because of what it was obligated to do. Unlike in 2012 with The Avengers, Marvel has a clear plan for where they want to go moving forward, which will ultimately culminate in a two-part Avengers film. Knowing this, it’s hard for me to view Age of Ultron as anything more than a $280 million layover. This film had to introduce the world of Wakanda for the upcoming Black Panther. It had to push the characters of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Cpt. America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to where they’re going in Captain America: Civil War and Thor: Ragnarok, respectively. It had to introduce The Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch, teaming them up with Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and War Machine (Don Cheadle) to create the “new Avengers”. It had to continue the foreplay with the infinity stones for the impending battle with Thanos (Josh Brolin). This seems confusing, and it is. Not only did Age of Ultron have a roster so big it could make even the most trusting fanboy weary, it had to actually do something with all its characters, and that something is not necessarily relevant to this particular film. Considering all of this, it’s amazing that Age of Ultron wasn’t a complete train-wreck.

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That’s the key here, Age of Ultron isn’t “bad”. If you’ve enjoyed the recent offerings from Marvel, you’ll find plenty to love. There’s non-stop action, hilarious one-liners, and countless easter eggs for the keen eye to pick out. But the praise, at least from me (a HUGE fan of these films), stops there. I didn’t find the actual action or visual effects, save for the incredible work they did with Ultron itself, to be all that enticing. In the funny department, this film was a step back from the first one and Guardians of the Galaxy. I thought the new characters were introduced to mixed results. I’ll have more on this in a bit, but first, I want to take a few paragraphs to discuss what I loved about Age of Ultron.

Strangely enough, the smaller scenes in the film were the ones that stuck with me. I, unlike many, thought the budding romance between Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was handled perfectly. It began with this cute tension, and resulted in a rather heartbreaking ending. It wasn’t sexist. Black Widow is in control of nearly every scene she’s in, dating back to her debut in Iron Man 2. Even when surrounded by some of the most powerful men in the galaxy, she’s usually the boss.

This romantic subplot gave both characters more to work with. In the first film, they were sort of just there. The continued development of motion-capture technology allows Ruffalo to do some powerful acting as the big green guy, and it worked. There is a different tone to these scenes than those with the casual flirting from Black Widow in other films. If you can’t differentiate between the two and want to call it sexist for “using her an object”, well, you’re wrong, but to each is his own. Maybe I’m a sucker, but I was much more interested in the dynamic between these two than the floating city in the end.

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I also found the scene with the party, where all the characters were in attendance, to be quite fun. They drank and cracked jokes. They referenced earlier films. They all tried to pick up Thor’s hammer. There was this sense of impending doom that played in the background, but is was still one of the lighter scenes in the film. When an early form of Ultron crashes this party and causes mayhem, we also get the films best action sequence. There’s no plan, no costumes, no structure at all. Our heroes were caught off-guard, and their response was fun to watch.  So yeah, I thought the smaller scenes in Age of Ultron were the strength of the film. It was actually during the gigantic moments where I found my attention wavering a bit.

On a visual level, Age of Ultron was not the step forward I thought it would be. In fact, some of the action concepts felt stale and eerily similar to those from the first film. Whedon essentially used the same shot from the battle of NYC in the opening snowy sequence in Age of Ultron; the shot where the camera pans around to all of the characters fighting and then is brought back to a frame with all of them in it. It’s a cool trick, but doesn’t provide the “wow” factor it did when it was used originally in 2012. I also found the final battle in Age of Ultron to be, frankly, boring and repetitive. Iron Man does something important while the rest of the team fights an endless army in the city streets??? Where have I seen that before? Oh yeah, IN THE AVENGERS.

(Note: the “Hulkbuster” scene was pretty dope, I must admit.)

 

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The urban destruction wasn’t as fun this time around. As Hawkeye said, the city is literally flying. I have no problem suspending my disbelief for 2+ hours, but c’mon; given that we all knew going in that the team would be back for another go-round, what intrigue was there in this films climax?

I do think the the FIFTEEN different FX teams hired to work on the film did a fine job creating the character of Ultron based off voice and body capture from James Spader. Ultron was funny, intimidating, and full of life. He smirked and smiled. He moved like a more powerful Iron Man. While I still don’t fully understand (or buy) his very vague worldview that inspires the destruction, I liked him overall as villain. He was certainly more interesting than the random space species we were introduced to in Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor: The Dark World.

As for the new characters we had the privilege of meeting in Age of Ultron; they were hit or miss. The Vision looked very cool on screen, and I honestly wish we got to see him do a little more. The way his moral compass differs from every other person in the film, both good and bad, is rather interesting. He figures to be a major player for Marvel moving forward.

whedonI really liked Olsen as Scarlet Witch. She’s just a damn good actress and the inner turmoil she battled throughout the film felt authentic. Her ability to control the minds of others made for some interesting moments with our heroes (Cap and Peggy almost had that dance!). Adding strong female characters to these very male-driven films (in terms of target audience/data tracking) is never a bad thing. But beyond that, Scarlet Witch is just a great character who was handled the right way by the filmmakers.

I wish I could say the same for her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). When using a superhero with super-speed, you simply have to make him funny (like Bryan Singer did with the “same” character in X-Men: Days of Future Past). Watching this guy blur around isn’t interesting in and of itself. But the character was so deftly serious in Age of Ultron. And given that’s he’s not naturally as powerful as someone like Iron Man or Thor, if that’s the route you’re going to take, Quicksilver becomes easily forgettable. Then you have Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who simply does not have the charisma, acting chops, or look required to be an enjoyable superhero. We all over-react when our favorite characters are cast, but in this case, those who opposed the decision were correct. And can we talk about his HORRIBLE Russian accent? It’s got to be one of the worst movie accents I’ve ever heard, like Leo in Blood Diamond bad.

By the time the credits rolled, I was tired, and I had already forgotten about most of the movie. The final battle was draining, as was the 141 minute runtime. While there was much to love, Age of Ultron felt like a waste of time to me. It felt like something force-fed to the fans in between the films Marvel really wants to make. Given what’s happened with these characters prior to the film, and what is on tap for Infinity Wars and Captain America: Civil War…did anything that happened in Age of Ultron actually matter?

This is not The Dark Knight. This is not The Empire Strikes Back. This is not The Road Warrior. This not a sequel that dramatically improved on its predecessor, taking the franchise into a new realm of possibility. This is a sequel that functioned as a slightly bigger version of its predecessor. This a sequel that’s primary goal was to set-up the “third one”. The blame doesn’t go to Joss Whedon, the cast, or the crew. The blame goes to Marvel Studios for its long-term focus, believing what is basically a layover can stand as its own film for nearly three hours.

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Or maybe the blame is with us, as fans. The film is at almost $700 million gloablly already. So Marvel was right, Age of Ultron can in fact stand on its own. It’s just shame that it does so, because it’s huge step back from the creative and wholly original filmmaking we saw with The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and Guardians of the Galaxy.

I’ll be the first in line for the next Marvel Studios movie, but secretly, I’ll be hoping they shrink their scope a bit.

Updated Marvel Cinematic Universe Power Rankings:

  1. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  2. The Avengers
  3. Guardians of the Galaxy
  4. Iron Man 3
  5. Thor
  6. Iron Man
  7. Captain America: The First Avenger
  8. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  9. Thor: The Dark World
  10. Iron Man 2
  11. The Incredible Hulk.

Until next time.

lokie