‘The Dark Knight’ is the Best Comic Book/Superhero Movie Ever Made

The Dark Knight poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written in 2008.

OK, let’s just get it out of the way: “The Dark Knight” is fucking brilliant! It is a triumph not just of action and direction, but also of acting and characters. This is not simply a story of good guys versus bad guys, but of flawed human beings whose childhood scars have long since formed them into people who can never lead a truly normal life (whatever that means anyway). How thrilling it is to see a movie which actually lives up to the hype. I was desperately trying to control my expectations before going in, but it was hard to with all the glorious reviews it has been getting. How relieved I am to see that all these reviews are more than justified!

No longer burdened by the traditional origin story, “The Dark Knight” thrusts us right into the action with a brilliantly staged robbery sequence. Christopher Nolan has said “Heat” was a big inspiration in this movie’s making, and it does have the look of a Michael Mann movie. It also allows the Joker, the Caped Crusader’s main nemesis here, a truly inspired introduction. Unlike other movie villains who are interested in money and power, the Joker really has no discernable movie other than creating total chaos. This makes him the scariest kind of villain as he has nothing to lose while everyone else does.

We catch up with Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as his alter ego of Batman is beginning to take its toll on him psychologically. Like Peter Parker in “Spider-Man 2” or Clark Kent in “Superman II,” he is starting to tire of the role he is playing, and he yearns to spend his days with the love of his life, Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, replacing Katie Holmes), as she represents the best chance for him to lead a normal life. This is even more so as Batman is now seen more as a vigilante and a danger to Gotham City, despite all he has done to clear the streets of the crime which nearly consumed it. This is made all the more complicated when the Joker gets everyone’s attention by saying he will kill one person a day until the Batman takes off his mask and reveals who he really is to the world. Naturally, the public blames Batman for what the Joker’s actions, and this adds to his desperation to rid himself of his alter-ego. But while Bruce may be able to live without Batman, can Gotham City?

Of all the Batman movies to date, this one gives us a Gotham City totally rooted in reality. All the previous installments have presented Gotham as a place of gothic buildings and ominously dark colors which come to consume the spirits of those living there. This is not the fantastical city we have seen in the past, but instead a city like others we know which are forced to deal with high levels of crime and corruption. As a result, the look and locale really add a lot to the story and the characters in it, and this makes everything seem more dangerous and precarious as a result. To do this I think is a brilliant move on Nolan’s part and, along with this summer’s “Iron Man,” it helps to completely redefine how a comic book movie can be cinematically realized.

I saw “The Dark Knight” on opening day with colleagues from my day job, and some of the people I work with have lived in the rougher parts of Los Angeles for a long time. They definitely saw some of those rougher parts in this movie, and when we exited the theater, one of them said, “Gotham is even worse than South Central!” To quote a line from “Pulp Fiction,” that’s a bold statement!

Bale now effectively owns the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. Before him, it was Michael Keaton who gave us the strongest portrait of this character. With Bale, you get a Batman and Bruce Wayne with different levels which he plays ever so effectively. Bruce goes from being a swinging playboy to a fighter of crime in no time at all, and even when he comes off as a cad, you still care about and root for him because it seems like no one can take care of crime the way he does.

The one person Bruce believes is the one who can relieve him his Batman duties is Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), a lawyer with a big ego and endless integrity which he vows never to relinquish. If “The Dark Knight” does not make Eckhart into a star, nothing will. It should have happened already last year with Jason Reitman’s “Thank You for Smoking” where he played a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, but this one should do the trick. Seeing Harvey’s transformation to strong district attorney to a tragic figure when he becomes the villainous Two Face is devastating. Eckhart makes you believe in him as a public servant, and when it seems like so much has been taken away from him, you feel tremendous sympathy for him while even as he makes which may forever destroy his valiant reputation.

By the way, his changing into Two Face was one of the movie’s best kept secrets throughout its advertisements. His transformation to this sinister character is hideous in its look and a brilliant mix of both makeup and technology. It is a face burned to where an eyelid is missing as well as part of the lip and gums, and it is a shocking visual when we first see it.

The movie has a strong cast with actors who ably fit the roles they have been cast in. Maggie Gyllenhaal fits the role of Rachel Dawes much better than Katie Holmes did, and she makes it all her own by creating a character who you can believe is not easily intimidated by the criminals she prosecutes. When she is caught between with Bruce and Harvey, Gyllenhaal believably makes her character seem like anything other than a pushover.

Michael Caine returns as Bruce’s loyal butler and silent partner in justice, Alfred. Caine is always a welcome presence in any movie he appears in, and the moment where he compares the Joker to another criminal from his past is a strong one as he makes it clear to Bruce and the audience what kind of nemesis he is facing up against this time around.

Morgan Freeman is also back as Lucius Fox who is to Batman as Q is to James Bond. The moment where he stares down an employee making a threat against him and Bruce Wayne is a brilliant piece of stone faced acting which reminds us of why we love him so much as an actor. Even as a supporting player in the movies, he remains a force to be reckoned with.

We also have Gary Oldman back as one of Gotham’s few incorruptible cops, James Gordon. In the past, Oldman has given us some of the scariest and deadliest of villains we could ever hope to see onscreen. Since then, he has moved on to portray the good guy, and while this may seem like a bland choice for an actor like him to make, he succeeds in making his goodness and unstoppable nature in getting the bad guys very appealing. There are not many other actors I can think of who could pull this off, and you come to truly respect the kind of man Gordon is through his terrific performance.

But then there is Heath Ledger in what sadly became his final completed onscreen before his shocking death. There was a lot of talk, before “The Dark Knight” came out, of if he should be nominated for an Oscar and perhaps even become the first posthumous Academy Award winner since Peter Finch in “Network.” Some like Terry Gilliam have found this to be utterly annoying and simply see it as Warner Brothers’ way of juicing up the excitement for this movie so it can have one hell of an opening weekend. While this criticism is certainly justified, I now count myself on the bandwagon for Ledger getting the damn Oscar as he took on a role already made famous by Jack Nicholson and others, and he more than succeeded in making it his own. This seemed unthinkable when it was first announced he would playing the Joker, but Nolan was correct in saying Ledger was “fearless.”

Seriously, Ledger’s performance is a work of art. Whereas Nicholson made us share in his gleefully sadistic nature as the Joker to where we couldn’t deny we were endlessly entertained, Ledger gives us a Joker who is a viciously terrifying psychotic and one to be feared whenever he is onscreen. God only knows what depths the actor went to in order to play this role, but it is easy to see why he lost a lot of sleep over it. His Joker is indeed the scariest of villains as he has no real motive for doing what he does. This guy is in it for all the chaos and anarchy he can get out of Gotham, and he couldn’t seem to care less about money and power. Ledger makes his Joker a live wire, and the tension when he is in a room with one he is taunting is so thick, you need a heavy-duty chainsaw cut through it. There is no real back story to this Joker other than a story he tells about his daddy cutting his face to explain why his face is scared, but then again, can you really be sure he is telling the truth?

Seriously, I would put Ledger’s Joker on the same level with Hannibal Lecter from “The Silence of the Lambs” as well as Robert DeNiro’s Max Cady from “Cape Fear.” I would even go as far as to put him on a pedestal alongside Ben Kingsley’s ragingly raw performance as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast.” I love a bad guy who totally gets under our skin to such an effect to where it feels like he or she is reaching out of the screen to choke you. I get such a fiendish delight out of this, and Ledger’s performance makes it seem like it has been so long since we have had a truly unnerving villain show up on the silver screen.

While we revel in the brilliance of Ledger’s performance as Joker, it makes his loss seem all the more tragic because he succeeded in completely disappearing into the character he played in the same way Marlon Brando and De Niro have in the past. We were tragically robbed of an actor who would have easily become one of the greatest actors of his generation had he lived. His role as the Joker is one hell of an exit, but it feels so unfair that he now has to join the ranks of actors like James Dean who left us way too soon.

Unlike other summer movie blockbusters, this one is not afraid to take us on a journey to the darkest and most despairing depths of its characters short-lived triumphs and endless sorrows. This is a movie about how blurred our moral and ethical boundaries can get when we are pushed beyond our limits. Many big choices are made not just by the main characters, but by the people of Gotham. What will they do to survive? What choices will they make? But more importantly, what will their choice say about them, and are they prepared to live with the consequences of their actions?

These questions hit everyone hard, but no one gets hit harder than Bruce as he finds, in order to defeat the Joker, he has to become almost as bad as him. But can he live with that? Can the others close to him live with that as well? Bruce starts to find himself boxed into a corner as the Joker continually taunts him in a ways which turn the public against him. In the end, he becomes a lot like Jack Bauer from “24” as he protects the people as much as he can, but in the process comes to pay a very high price for what he does. Batman says he is not a hero, and while his actions are heroic, he does have a point. And in order to protect what integrity Gotham has left, he has to make some hard sacrifices.

Nothing in the city of Gotham is black and white, but an endless sea of grey as people are challenged to see who they really are. No one is innocent, and everyone is guilty of something. “The Dark Knight” finds its power and tragedy in the characters who start off good, but who soon lose their way as they head down a path they can never easily turn back from. As Harvey Dent says, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Nolan is now officially one of the best directors working today, and I am thrilled he got away with making a film as dark as this one and still get a PG-13 rating in the process. He started his career off with a bang with “Memento,” and he gave us his one of the few genuinely great remakes with “Insomnia” in which he directed Al Pacino and Robin Williams to some of their best performances ever. With “The Dark Knight,” he has continued to make Batman and the world he inhabits very much his own, and he may very well have made the best superhero movie ever. Even while it clocks in at about two and a half hours, you never feel the length because Nolan fully immerses you into what everything going on.

After the movie was finished, I went right out and bought the soundtrack which is composed by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. It is a fantastic and intense score, and they easily best the work they did on “Batman Begins.” For me, this is a sign of a truly great motion picture as I did the exact same thing after I saw “Pulp Fiction” and “Boogie Nights.” I loved this movie. I LOVED IT!! I hope it makes a HUGE killing at the box office because this is the kind of summer movie I want to see more often.

As of right now, “The Dark Knight” is the movie to beat for 2008.

* * * * out of * * * *

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‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ is a Fun Ride, and it May Be the Web Slinger’s Last in the MCU

Spider Man Far From Home Theatrical Poster

So, after a summer filled with an endless need to make ends meet, I finally got the chance to check out “Spider-Man: Far from Home.” Watching it at this point proves to be bittersweet as this may be the character’s last time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since Disney and Sony are in a battle over profits. Spider-Man does whatever a spider can, but even a spider can fight only so much against greed and capitalism before he is undone or rebooted. It’s a crying shame because Peter Parker and his alter-ego were wonderfully reinvigorated thanks to Tom Holland who, ever since “Captain America: Civil War,” has proven to be the best Spider-Man yet. Here is hoping this will not be the last time we see Holland in this role as he keeps us invested in this teenager’s never-ending struggle between managing adolescence and being a superhero.

Eight months have passed since the events of “Avengers: Endgame” in which our heroes thwarted Thanos’ snap (everyone else calls it “the blip”) but did so at a great cost. Peter still mourns the death of Tony Stark as he tries to get back to being just a friendly neighborhood superhero, but Tony’s face is everywhere and it seems like everyone else expects Spider-Man to be the next Iron Man. It’s a lot to place on the shoulders of any one person, let alone those of a teenage boy eager to tell the girl he has a mad crush on how he truly feels about her.

A better title for this “Spider-Man” outing would have been “Spider-Man’s European Vacation” as Peter and his classmates which include his best friend Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and love interest MJ (Zendaya), travel to Europe and some neighboring countries. Peter sees this as a much-needed opportunity to take a break from his Avenger duties and just be a kid, and Ned sees it as a chance for the two of them to be American bachelors in Europe because, or so he says, “Europeans love Americans.”

Of course, none of us can expect any Avenger to get much vacation time as the Water Elemental strikes with a vengeance in Venice, leaving our characters to run for their lives. Peter quickly springs into action, but he is aided by another superhero who goes by the name of Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal), but we all come to know him as Mysterio. Even though the two of them save the day, Nick Fury (the always reliably bad ass Samuel L. Jackson) shows up to tell him his help is needed. Peter protests how he is not ready to extend his duties beyond Queens, New York, but Fury bluntly reminds him, “Bitch, you’ve been to space!”

“Spider-Man: Far from Home” works best when it focuses more on the human element than on the spectacle. Spider-Man has always proven to be one of the most human of superheroes in movies and literature as his personal problems are no different from the ones we experienced at his age. Deep down, we all wanted to seem normal to our fellow classmates, and so does Peter. Still, hormones and awkwardness among other things needlessly but inevitably complicate our lives to where we are left with a lot of emotional scars which take forever to heal, if at all. Peter Parker is the MCU’s prime example of this, and it makes you admire him all the more as his juggling act is made all the more challenging throughout.

Jon Watts returns to the director’s chair after having done an excellent job with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and he infuses this installment with the same amount of fun and excitement. Along with screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, he makes Spider-Man’s predicament parallel with the insane times we live in as “alternative facts” and “fake news” have been given far more power than they ever deserved. Whether or not our heroes win the day, we are left to wonder if they will ever be able to fully control the narrative. As one character points out late in the film, “People need to believe, and nowadays they’ll believe anything.” As much as I hate to quote Rudy Giuliani in this or any other review, his ridiculous statement of how “truth is not truth” is played to great effect throughout this movie and its post credit scenes.

The thin line between reality and fiction is put to the test in an amazing sequence in which Spider-Man is thrust into a simulated world which alters his perception of reality in the same frightening way Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law were in David Cronenberg’s “Existenz.” Just when Peter thinks he has a handle on things, so do we, and this proves to be our Achilles heel as reality is not at all what it used to be.

The climatic battle in “Spider-Man: Far from Home” ends up containing a bit too much in the way of CGI and suffers from overkill as a result. It is entertaining to sit through, but the overuse of visual effects ended up taking me out of the action more than I would have liked, and it makes this sequel pale in comparison to “Homecoming.” It always sucks when you watch a visual effect knowing it is a visual effect because there are many moments in this film which made me feel the exact opposite. Still, it failed to take away much of the enjoyment I had in watching these characters suffer through one of the best and worst field trips any of us could ever hope to have.

I also gotta say just how much I love this cast of actors. Aside from Holland, you have the great Martin Starr who is a deadpan delight as academic decathlon teacher Roger Harrington, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau who gleefully returns as Harold “Happy” Hogan, Marisa Tomei who has long since proven to be the most alluring Aunt May of all, Cobie Smulders who remains an enticing and powerful presence as Maria Hill, and J.B. Smoove is a hoot to watch as science teacher Julius Dell. In addition, Tony Revolori returns as Peter’s classmate and YouTuber Eugene “Flash” Thompson as it allows us to see something many of us have wanted to see done to the most annoying YouTubers of all; get a swift kick in the balls.

It’s fascinating to watch Gyllenhaal here as he was almost cast as Spider-Man at one point. Seeing him making his first appearance in the MCU is a most welcome one as he has long since proven himself an actor to be reckoned with in movies like “Nightcrawler” and “Nocturnal Animals.” As Mysterio, he makes this character a complex one as he sympathizes with Peter’s plight while proving to be a bit of an enigma. When the truth of Mysterio is revealed to all, it made me respect Gyllenhaal’s performance all the more as it shows how he has to play not just with Peter’s mind, but the audience as well. Looks can be deceiving, and Gyllenhaal makes them especially deceiving here.

Like I said, watching “Spider-Man: Far from Home” proves to be very bittersweet as this may very well be the very last time we see this iconic character as part of the MCU. It’s a real shame as the first post credit scene we get foretells of a dark future for Peter Parker as his life is completely compromised through, among other things, doctored footage. Where can he go from here? It’s an infinitely interesting question.

Whatever happens from here, we will always have J. Jonah Jameson.

* * * out of * * * *

 

‘Dark Phoenix’ is the Worst ‘X-Men’ Movie Yet

Dark Phoenix movie poster

“X-Men: The Last Stand” has long been treated as the bastard stepchild of the “X-Men” franchise. The Brett Ratner-directed take on “The Dark Phoenix Saga” was sharply criticized by both fans and critics, and it took quite the beating from everyone it seemed including Bryan Singer who left the “X-Men” franchise to direct “Superman Returns,” and Matthew Vaughn who was set to direct this one before dropping out. “X-Men: Days of Future Past” helped wipe the slate clean by altering the timeline to where the events of “The Last Stand” no longer existed. And let’s not forget the scene from “X-Men: Apocalypse” where characters were walking out of “Return of the Jedi” which they felt paled in comparison to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and Jean Grey ends up saying, “Well, at least we can all agree the third one’s always the worst.” Please do not try to convince me this was not a jab at “The Last Stand.”

Now we have “Dark Phoenix,” the twelfth installment of the “X-Men” franchise, and it aims to give audiences a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga.” It also marks the directorial debut of Simon Kinberg, a long-time screenwriter in this franchise and someone eager to make up for the mistakes made in “The Last Stand.” With this being the last installment of the 20th Century Fox-produced “X-Men” franchise now that Disney owns Fox and plans to incorporate these characters into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this one has to be the penultimate sequel of the bunch, right?

Nope, not a chance. With “Dark Phoenix,” Kinberg has given us the worst “X-Men” movie yet. While has a strong cast and excellent special effects to work with, the narrative is badly conceived, the screenplay is muddled, characters actions are ill-defined, and it features the blandest set of villains this franchise has ever had. While these movies have in general proven to be tremendously entertaining, I walked out of this one feeling very indifferent to it as the whole project feels inescapably dull and anti-climatic.

It’s a real shame because “Dark Phoenix” gets things off to a good start as we learn how Jean Grey came to be more or less adopted by Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) after her mutant powers inadvertently get her parents killed in a nasty car accident. From there, the story moves to 1992 when the X-Men fly into outer space to rescue astronauts after their space shuttle is damaged by a solar flare. But in the process, Jean Grey (played by Sophie Turner) absorbs the solar flare in her body and looks to have been killed. But after being rescued, she appears to be just fine, and soon she realizes her psychic powers have been amplified to an infinite degree. It’s like the scene in “Wolf” where Kate Nelligan wakes up Jack Nicholson after he’s been asleep for 24 hours. She asks how he is feeling and Nicholson, with a Cheshire cat grin, replies, “I feel ah… Good!” Yes, and so does Jean until the two separate personalities within her begin to fight with one another and leave a lot of damage which will have insurance agents scratching their heads in disbelief.

From there, everything in “Dark Phoenix” feels routine to the point where I got increasingly weary while watching it. We have been done this road before in the “X-Men” franchise before, and Kinberg fails to bring anything new or fresh to this material. This installment also lacks the powerful emotion which made the best “X-Men” even more enthralling than they already were. A major mutant character is killed off in this one, but this death was already spoiled in the trailers to where the loss feels hollow.

Jennifer Lawrence, who returns as Mystique, does have one good scene in which she chews out Professor Charles Xavier for getting caught up in all the celebrity hoopla foisted upon the X-Men for their heroic efforts they have done. She is quick to remind Charles how the women have at times been the most heroic of the bunch to where she wonders if X-Men should instead be called X-Women. Yes, score one for the Me Too and Time’s Up movements!

Other than that, Lawrence and other actors like Nicholas Hoult and Alexandra Shipp, both of whom return as Beast and Storm, don’t look terribly interested in reprising their roles. Things get even worse as alliances keep shifting back and forth and in ways which seem completely contrived. There was also plenty of laughter throughout the press screening I attended, and I have no doubt most of it was unintentional.

Then there are the villains of this piece, the D’Bari who are a shape-shifting alien race intent on obtaining the power Jean Grey now has. They are led by Vuk (Jessica Chastain, completely wasted here), and they are some of the most banal antagonists in recent cinema history. All of them look as though the life has been completely sucked out of their bodies to where I can’t help but say they each had too many Botox treatments. This alien race leaves very little to the imagination, and they are far from memorable.

Coming out of “Dark Phoenix,” I spent a lot of time wondering how something which came with a lot of promise could have gone so terribly wrong. It also makes me feel sorry for Kinberg as I have no doubt he came into this project with the best of intentions, but the road to hell is always paved with them. Everything here feels very tired and ill-thought, and having Magneto (Michael Fassbender) come back into the action after someone close to him has been killed made my eyes roll as this has always been the case with this character. Didn’t Magneto learn anything from the previous two installments?

What also infuriated me is that “Dark Phoenix” does not provide Quicksilver (Evan Peters) with a rescue scene set to a classic 1990’s song. “Days of Future Past” had this supersonic character saving his fellow mutants to the 1970’s song “Time in a Bottle” by Jim Croce, and “Apocalypse” had him doing the same thing to the tune of the Eurythmics’ 1980’s classic “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).” I came into “Dark Phoenix” expecting Quicksilver to do his hypersonic rescue thing to a 1990’s classic song, but no such luck. It could have been something by Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden or perhaps Nine Inch Nails (“Head Like a Hole” would have been a great choice). Heck, they could have even used “Dyslexic Heart” by Paul Westerberg.

It’s no secret of how troubled the production of “Dark Phoenix” was. Thanks to poor test screenings, the entire third act had to be reshot. Its release was delayed a number of times as a result, and even though Kinberg describe the reshoots as being a “normal” process for any movie, none of them helped to salvage the cinematic mess we have here.

This is also the first “X-Men” movie not to feature Hugh Jackman as Wolverine as he had played the character for the last time in “Logan.” Indeed, Wolverine is the missing link here as his romance with Jean Grey gave the story much of its emotional power. This same level emotion is seriously missing here as we reach a conclusion which is never really in doubt. Then again, having Jackman romancing Sophie Turner would have seemed a bit strange.

For the record, I liked “The Last Stand,” but I have also never read the Marvel comic books it was based on. Had I done so, perhaps my feelings on Ratner’s film would have been different, but I still found it to be an entertaining ride from start to finish and with emotion to spare. Even if it paled in comparison with the first two “X-Men” movies, it still fared much better than the prequel which came after it “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” and I did not care for that one much. While I know fans and filmmakers were eager to see a more faithful adaptation of “The Dark Phoenix Saga” come to fruition, the fact this is a complete failure makes it a stunning disappointment and the first real letdown of the summer 2019 movie season. Fans of the franchise will still go out to see “Dark Phoenix,” but the most fun they will have is in analyzing everything wrong with it.

My only hope with “Dark Phoenix” now is that it can drum up interest in the long-delayed stand-alone “X-Men” movie, “The New Mutants.” That one has seen its release delayed for over two years, and 20th Century Fox can only hide it next to the Lindberg baby for only so much longer.

* ½ out of * * * *

‘Hellboy II: The Golden Army’ Has Del Toro and Perlman Up To Their Old Tricks

Hellboy II The Golden Army movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Darn it, I was not able to get around to seeing the original “Hellboy” before checking out its sequel, so I hope I am not missing much. When all is said and done, however, I was able to follow along with “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” and its characters with little, if any, confusion. I would like to know how the fish character, Abraham, breathes outside of the water, but I guess I’ll have to watch the original to find this out. With this sequel, we do get some back story of how the title character came to be, so the uninitiated shouldn’t feel too alienated from what is going on here.

Hellboy II,” like its predecessor, comes to us from the infinitely inspired cinematic mind of Guillermo Del Toro whose work here proves to be endlessly imaginative on a visual level. In the last few years, he has proven to be one of the most original and creative directors working in movies, and his 2006 film “Pan’s Labyrinth” was one of the very best of that year. While this sequel doesn’t reach the creative brilliance of that movie, it doesn’t matter much because this time around Del Toro is just out to give us a fun time. “Hellboy II” is definitely a lot of fun, and there is plenty of creativity on display here which you don’t see from your average movie studio looking to cut down overall budgets wherever and whenever they can.

Hellboy himself is played by Ron Perlman, and there is no one else who could have inhabited this demonic superhero anywhere as effectively. Seriously, I can’t think of one. Perlman previously worked with Del Toro in “Blade II” which was another great sequel, and he is also best known for his roles in “The City of Lost Children” and the television series “Beauty and the Beast.” His imposing height and rough demeanor fit perfectly with this comic book character who has a lot of Casper the friendly ghost inside of him as he wants to get along with people instead of them fearing and hating him. Hellboy is kind of like Snake Plissken from “Escape From New York,” except he does care about more than himself than just staying alive.

The prologue lets those who haven’t seen the original know how Hellboy was actually created by the Nazis, but he was soon rescued by the Army and raised to be one of the good guys instead of becoming a villain. On Christmas Eve, he is told a bedtime story by his surrogate father, Professor Trevor ‘Broom’ Bruttenholm (John Hurt). This allows Del Toro to set up the story of the Golden Army and of how they waged a war against humanity to rule the earth. The truce between the mythical world and humanity, however, is about to be broken as Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) seeks to restore the rule back to the mythical world.

The world of “Hellboy” is much like the one we saw in the “X-Men” movies as it deals with characters rejected by society for being different. Hellboy, while being hurt by the rejection of the humans, seems to have a strong sense of humor about the whole situation. While doing his duty against his and the world’s enemies, he always finds the time to drink a couple 6-packs of imported beer and take care of an unusually high number of cats (how does he keep track of them all?). The other characters around him are just as alienated from humanity, and this is mainly because the majority of them look anything but human. One of the other main characters, Abe Sapien (played by Doug Jones), is a fishlike character who has to wear a special breathing apparatus filled with water wherever he goes. One of the other ingeniously created characters in this movie is Johann Krauss, an ectoplasmic being who lives in a containment suit. While the characters of the “X-Men” movies may stand a chance of having seemingly normal lives, the ones in the “Hellboy” franchise don’t look to be as lucky.

I enjoyed some of the music choices Del Toro made here, and I’m not just talking about Danny Elfman’s score which is the same kind of score he gives to Tim Burton movies. There is one point where the song “Beautiful Freak” by the Eels (one of my favorite alternative bands) is used to help illustrate the strong relationship Hellboy and his girlfriend Liz (Selma Blair) have. No one can love Hellboy the way Liz does, and it certainly not a perfect love to put it mildly. There is also a funny and strangely touching moment between Hellboy and Abe where they start singing to a Barry Manilow song as they seek to find the elusive magic of love.

Selma Blair proves to be terrific as Liz, and she gives her character a don’t mess with me attitude as well as a vulnerability which makes us care about her all the more. You never doubt that she is ready and willing to risk her life and even the fate of humanity to save Hellboy for reasons which are made abundantly clear at this sequel’s start.

I also really admired the character of the Johann Krauss and of how he was created. There is also a hilarious fight scene between him and Hellboy where he ends up fighting the hornless devil boy in the least expected way possible. That scene was one of my favorites, and it also helps that Johann is voiced by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of “Family Guy.”

There’s nothing truly original about the story of “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” but Del Toro still manages to make it feel original in a way only he can pull off. Right now, he is one of the few directors I can think of who has a really unique filmmaking style. Even if this sequel doesn’t prove to be one of his best works, it still has a wonderful level of creativity missing from many mainstream films.

In the end, “Hellboy II” proves to be a fun ride, and it does make me want to catch the original at some point in my lifetime. Better yet, I should also check out “The Devil’s Backbone,” “Cronos” and “Mimic.” I have a lot of catching up to do.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Takes the Webslinger to New Heights

Spiderman Into The Spiderverse poster

Alongside Superman and Batman, Spider-Man is one of my most favorite comic book characters. Peter Parker was an ordinary teenager before he got bit by a genetically modified spider, and from there he was gifted with super powers anyone would be envious to have. But in the process, he learns that with great power comes great responsibility, and this includes leaving the love of his life, be it Mary Jane or Gwen Stacy, at a distance in order to keep her safe from his devious enemies. While it must be very cool to be Spider-Man, it is also a very lonely existence as he needs to keep the people he is closest to in the dark as their safety will always be at risk once his identity is revealed to all.

One of the real joys of watching “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is realizing Peter Parker’s existence is not as lonely as we believed it to be. While attempting to thwart the efforts of Wilson Fisk/Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) who is using a particle accelerator to access parallel universes in an effort to bring back his deceased wife and son, we learn there are many different versions of Spider-Man here, there and everywhere, and there is something very reassuring about Peter realizing he is not the only one of his kind.

The main character here is Miles Morales (“Dope” star Shameik Moore), an African-American teenager who is at ease in his inner-city neighborhood, but struggles to fit in at the elite boarding school he was enrolled in following a well-received essay he wrote. Miles wants to fulfill the expectations of his police officer father Jefferson Davis (Brian Tyree Henry) and his nurse mother Rio Morales (Lauren Valez), but he looks to his beloved uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali) to encourage his creative side more than anyone else.

As you can expect, Miles also gets bitten by a radioactive spider and becomes the superhero he admires, Spider-Man, but he is of course not the least bit ready to take on such a part. Who would be anyway? But when the real Peter Parker is eliminated with extreme prejudice by Kingpin, Miles has no choice but to take his place even as he passes off the changes in his body as being a part of puberty. If such things were easily explainable, the realm of adolescence would be easier to live through.

Miles does however get help from Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), but being a Spider-Man from an alternate universe, he is not the equivalent of the one portrayed in previous movies by Tobey Maguire, Andrew Garfield and Tom Holland. This Peter has gained a lot of weight and is hopelessly alone after a painful divorce from Mary Jane, and he is not quick to help Miles on the superhero journey he himself has taken, but he slowly becomes enamored at Miles’ spirit and determination to where he ends up helping him put an end to Kingpin’s evil and selfish reign.

With the many parallel universes exposed, we get introduced to the different incarnations of the webslinger which include Gwen Stacy and her spunky alter-ego Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), Peter Porker and the gleefully animated Spider-Ham (the hilarious John Mulaney), the young Japanese girl Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who hails from an anime universe where she pilots a biochemical suit with a radioactive spider, and the dark and monochromatic Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage in a truly inspired voiceover). Seeing them all interact with one another here adds more heart and laughs to an already highly entertaining film.

The late Stan Lee, who does have an animated cameo here, once said Peter Parker should always be white, but that he wouldn’t have minded if the character were originally “black, a Latino, an Indian or anything else.” What this movie shows us is how anyone can be Spider-Man, and there’s something truly inspiring about that as superhero roles can at times feel ridiculously limited. It also helps that this animated movie comes on the heels of the brilliant “Black Panther” and “Wonder Woman” as the role of superhero is no longer, and never should have been, limited to one gender or ethnicity, and this was especially the case when it came to battling Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War.”

I was not sure what to expect when walking into “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” as the thought of an animated “Spider-Man” seemed a little far-fetched and seemed like another attempt by Sony and Columbia Pictures to create a cinematic universe a la “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” and we all know how that one turned out. In a way it is satirical as it plays around with many comic book tropes and has fun dealing with the web-slinger at his best and worst. The filmmakers even take a hilarious dig at the character’s emo-dance from “Spider-Man 3” which Peter Parker is quick to distance himself from (can you blame him?).

But what makes this movie so good is how deeply it invests us in this particular Spider-Man’s life. Miles Morales is not just another Peter Parker clone as he still has his mom and dad, and he is forced to live in two different worlds the same way Amandla Stenberg’s character had to in “The Hate U Give.” While I have long since grown tired of origin movies which deal with a superhero’s beginning as we know they will eventually accept their anointed role, this one rings true emotionally as we watch Miles be understandably hesitant about becoming the next Spider-Man, but his transition from someone blaming his body changes on puberty to a young man eager to save his universe from the devious acts of Kingpin is never less than compelling.

It really feels great to see Spider-Man on a roll right now. Following the much-too-soon reboot known as “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the webslinger made a terrific rebound in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and had one of the most achingly emotional moments in the “Empire Strikes Back” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Infinity War.” In a time where the franchises of “Star Trek” and “Halloween” seek to alter the timelines of their iconic characters to take things in another direction, it’ll be interesting to see where Spider-Man will go from here. “Spider-Man: Far from Home” is arriving in theaters next year, and I imagine we will see him again in “Avengers: Endgame.” Whatever the case, it puts a smile on my face to see Peter Parker and his alter-ego continue to be infinitely popular in pop culture as this is a hero blessed with super powers as well as with the foresight of the importance of responsibilities. Regardless of whoever takes on the role of Spider-Man, we come out of this movie with the solid belief said person will take it seriously, and we have to be thankful for that.

And yes, there are post-credit scenes for you to enjoy and, like “Once Upon a Deadpool,” this one features a thoughtful tribute to Stan Lee. May his legacy never be forgotten.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Once Upon a Deadpool’ Has Subversive Delights But Feels Largely Uneven

Once Upon a Deadpool poster

Well, it turns out we didn’t have to wait too long for another “Deadpool” movie to make its way to theaters everywhere. But as I’m sure you know by now, this is actually “Deadpool 2” rechristened as a Christmas movie and diluted down to a PG-13 rating, and it comes with the amusing title of “Once Upon a Deadpool.” This version comes with the added bonus of Wade Wilson/Deadpool reading the story of this sequel to Fred Savage who finds himself trapped in a painstakingly recreated set of his character’s bedroom from “The Princess Bride.” Is it worth the price of admission? Well, yes and no.

What makes this modified version of “Deadpool 2” worth seeing is the interplay between Ryan Reynolds and Savage who still looks like he has only aged so much from his child actor days. As much as Savage tries to convince Wade of how he has long since become an adult and, in addition to acting, also works as a writer and director. It’s also doesn’t help things that Wade has kidnapped Savage and taped him to the bed. But as Wade sees it, this is just “unsolicited location advancement.”

One thing “Once Upon a Deadpool” will forever make you remember is a certain comic book trope known as “fridging.” This refers to a female character, a girlfriend or spouse, getting killed off as a plot device to forward the main character’s actions and evolution. Many criticized “Deadpool 2” for being quick to kill off Wade’s girlfriend, Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), as she was one of the most memorable characters from the original. This was complicated by the sequel’s co-writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, freely admitting they were never aware of this trope. Well, at least everyone credit here as Savage confronts Wade about this and describes it as “lazy writing.” Even now, he everyone involved in the “Deadpool” franchise is quick to have a sense of humor about the criticisms made about the movie. Whatever the writers’ intentions, it is good for a big laugh.

Even with a PG-13 rating, this revised version takes no prisoners as those in front of and behind the camera lay waste to Nickelback, the fact Deadpool is a Marvel character subsidized by 20th Century Fox and not part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and of the number of F-bombs which can be included in a version, excluding of course the 4-letter words which are bleeped out. Then again, those bleeped out words may not be the ones you are thinking of.

As for Nickelback, I’m not sure if I have ever listened to any of their songs. All I know is everyone seems to think they suck. I wonder how they feel about all the derision they get for their music. Maybe the fact they are mentioned in this movie will raise their record sales a little. Remember, any publicity is good publicity.

In many ways, the whole of “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a send-up of the PG-13 rating in general. When you look at what is left of “Deadpool 2” after the removal of certain words and the copious amounts of blood, we are still left with a motion picture which is still pretty violent and features, among other things, characters getting run over by cars, Deadpool exploding into pieces, and T.J. Miller whom I figured would be removed from this version the same way Kevin Spacey was removed from “All the Money in the World.” Besides, we already know this actor will not be around for “Deadpool 3.”

This PG-13 rated version also serves as an amusing reminder of the hypocrisy of the MPAA as they are clearly more comfortable with violence than they are with sex. Imagine if there was a scene of Vanessa getting oral pleasure from Wade. The MPAA would flip over that more than any scene of ultra-violence this sequel has to offer and would be quick to give it an NC-17 for all the wrong reasons.

Having said all this, I have to say “Once Upon a Deadpool” is undone by this rating as scenes are excised and others added, and it throws off the whole rhythm of the film. The narrative feels severely uneven, and what was funny before now feels stilted and out of place this time around. “Deadpool 2” was one of the best times I had at the movies in 2018, but this version makes me wonder why I enjoyed it so much in the first place. If nothing else, it proves how the “Deadpool” movies work better in R-rated territory. When the first one came along, it was a cinematic grenade the realm of comic book/superhero movies needed as many of them were playing it safe. This made the first “Deadpool” all the more welcome as it shook things up and gave us something not all PC, but it was still filled with a lot of heart and taught everyone a great lesson about loving someone from the inside out and not the outside in.

So overall, “Once Upon a Deadpool” is a mixed bag. I loved the scenes between Savage and Reynolds as they add another subversive layer to the proceedings, but the rest of the movie feels off-balance. If you can handle that, then it is worth checking out, and a dollar from your ticket will be donated to the Fudge Cancer charity. It is actually known under another name, but again, we are in PG-13 territory and only so many F-bombs will be tolerated along with onscreen violence.

And yes, there are some enjoyable post-credit scenes to enjoy including an honorable tribute to the late Stan Lee. Yes, he was 95 years old, but he still left us way too soon.

* * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Venom’ is a Mixed Bag But Never Boring

Venom movie poster

My feelings about “Venom” are decidedly mixed. On one hand, I came out of it thinking a better movie could have been made out of this material. On the other, I cannot deny I found what ended up onscreen to be very entertaining. There are times where I wanted filmmakers to realize how less is more and how silence can be golden, but you don’t go into a comic book movie like this expecting a Terrence Malick film, and its tagline of “the world has enough superheroes” serves as a way to make it stand out among others of its genre. With this one, we can expect a little more nastiness than usual, albeit of the PG-13 variety.

The character of Eddie Brock and his alter ego of Venom has been begging for a proper cinematic treatment ever since he made his debut in the highly disappointing “Spider-Man 3.” In that ill-fated sequel, Venom was introduced almost as an afterthought to where it seemed like the bosses at Sony and Columbia Pictures forced Sam Raimi to add the character into a movie which was already overflowing with them. Well, this time Venom gets his own movie which feels long overdue, and he is played by the great Tom Hardy who has played his share of larger than life characters to where he is right at home with this one.

“Venom” starts off like the average “Predator” movie does, with a spacecraft of some kind crashing down violently on planet Earth and introducing a foreign organism, in this case a symbiote, which will soon wreak havoc on humanity. This, however, doesn’t stop Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), a brilliant inventor, from experimenting on them with the help of desperate human subjects who just want a place to sleep and food to eat.

Meanwhile, we are introduced to Eddie Brock, an investigative journalist who is infinitely determined to get to the truth no matter what the cost. Eddie has a nice apartment in the great city of San Francisco and a loving girlfriend in district attorney Anne Weying (Michelle Williams, who looks lovelier in each movie she appears in), but all of this disappears when he goes after Carlton in an effort to expose his corruption. But with greed taking precedence over ethics, Carlton succeeds in ruining Eddie’s life and gets him fired from his job, and Anne breaks up with him upon learning he got into her email which contained confidential information. It makes you want to smack Eddie for not realizing he could have clicked on the “mark as unread” button to cover his tracks.

“Venom” then moves to several months later where Eddie is now living by himself and lamenting his present state where, when someone asks if he is Eddie Brock, he responds he used to be, a cliché which has been used one too many times. However, he gets a chance to be an investigative reporter again when the ethical and concerned Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) informs him of the experiments Carlton is doing with the alien symbiotes. But when Dora sneaks Eddie into the Life Foundation which Carlton oversees, he ends up getting infected by a symbiote and inherits superpowers no mere mortal can easily handle.

It takes a bit for “Venom” to get things going as the filmmakers are not quick to see Eddie get infected by a symbiote. Once he does get infected, it provides Hardy with an interesting acting challenge as he has to play someone inhabited by another personality. Steve Martin did this to perfection in “All of Me,” and it is never as easy as it looks. As Eddie struggles to maintain some semblance of sanity while Venom seeks to dominate his body and soul, Hardy illustrates this uneasy balance with believability and a good dose of humor. Seeing him dive into a lobster tank in a restaurant just to bring down his temperature is a gas, let alone watching him eat constantly and not look like he’s gaining weight.

I was also surprised at how good Hardy’s American accent is here. The trailers for “Venom,” which did not do this movie many favors, made Hardy’s accent sound bizarre and out of place, so it’s a relief to see him pull it off without any hitches. In addition, the actor provides a perfectly ominous voice for Venom which comes close to equaling the one he gave Bane, and it is fun to watch Hardy essentially talk to himself as he races through the streets of San Francisco and reaching heights Steve McQueen never did in “Bullitt.”

The story reflects present day events as we have watched the most ethical of reporters get hammered by certain people who have made the terms “fake news” and “alternative facts” unforgivably popular. Fake news may just be smoke, but for some it is thick enough to hide behind. It’s also interesting to see Riz Ahmed play his villainous character of Carlton Drake as if he were a variation on Elon Musk. Ahmed portrays Carlton not so much as an evil mastermind, but instead as someone whose ambition cannot be reigned in, and it gets to where all sense of morality is lost to him as he convinces himself he is the one to save humanity from certain destruction.

“Venom,” however, does get bogged down a bit by needless clichés which I could have done without. As we watch Eddie drink away his sorrows in a lonely bar, someone asks if he is Eddie Brock. His answer of “I used to be” is a piece of dialogue I have heard far too many times. After watching “The Predator” in which Shane Black laid waste to a number of action movies clichés, I came into this one hoping Ruben Fleischer, the director of “Zombieland,” would inject a bit more freshness into these proceedings than he did.

Also, is it just me, or does Scott Haze, who plays evil henchman Roland Treece, look like Billy Corgan? Haze doesn’t get much of a chance to make Roland more than the average bad guy, and I kept waiting for Eddie to tell Roland he liked him better as the lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins. No such luck though.

The movie climaxes in a chaotic fashion with loud noises and explosions, and there are a couple of post-credit scenes which do deserve your attention. One of those scenes promises a follow-up with a character who aims to be as brutal as his name. There’s also a kick ass theme song done by Eminem in which the artist continues to spit out rhymes at lightning speed, although it might have been cooler to see it put at the movie’s beginning instead of being played during the end credits. I also could have done with more of Jenny Slate in the movie. She disappears from it way too soon.

Again, I left “Venom” with mixed feelings as I felt a better version of this material could have been brought to the silver screen. Still, what I did see was never boring, and watching Tom Hardy taking on such an iconic role was alone worth the price of admission. How you feel about the movie may depend on how familiar are with this comic book character. I myself never really read many comic books as a kid, so I am unsure how the most die-hard of fans will react to this finished product. My hope is more of them will get a kick out of it than not, but they can be infinitely critical to no end.

* * * out of * * * *

‘Ant-Man and the Wasp’ Provides Marvel Fans with a Much-Needed Lightweight Adventure

Ant Man and the Wasp movie poster

After the one-two punch of “Black Panther” and “Avengers: Infinity War,” I figured the masterminds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe would give themselves a break for the rest of 2018. Even “Deadpool 2,” which features a Marvel Comics character  not a part of the MCU (not yet anyway), showed how dominant these comic book/superhero movies are no matter which studio puts them out. Surely, Marvel Studios and Disney would want to keep themselves from oversaturating the market, right?

Well, now we have “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” a sequel which proves to be one of the MCU’s more lightweight adventures. Whereas “Avengers: Infinity War” was the “Empire Strikes Back” of this infinitely popular franchise, this one has a simple aim which is to entertain you and leave you laughing hysterically. It could not have come at a better time as us movie buffs are still recovering from the damage Thanos wrought on our heroes, and this one is removed from his wrath as it is keen to pick up things following the events of “Captain America: Civil War.”

After helping out Captain America to where he violated the Sokovia Accords, Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has been placed under house arrest, and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) have cut ties with him and gone into hiding. With only the occasional visit from his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) to keep to keep him company, his days are marked by loneliness and desperate attempts to keep himself entertained with various activities like drumming, karaoke and business meetings with his former cellmate and business partner Luis (Michael Pena).

As with any superhero movie, these characters have to deal with mommy and daddy issues because heaven forbid any superhero experiences a trauma-free childhood. It turns out Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer) had partnered with Hank’s Ant-Man as the Wasp in the past, and she was later presumed dead after becoming trapped in the microscopic quantum realm after disabling a nuclear missile. Scott, however, receives a message from Janet who is still alive and, like Kevin Flynn in “Tron: Legacy” has long since been imprisoned in a realm which offers no easy escape. This forces him to team up with Hank and Hope, who is now the new Wasp, in an effort to rescue her, and it comes with the usual obstacles of bad guys and inescapable scientific facts.

The first thing I have to say about “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is how much I enjoyed the opening which has Scott going on a make-believe adventure with Cassie in his house as they have constructed a simple yet imaginative maze which they travel through with great enthusiasm. This scene reminded me of the wonderful imaginary worlds we created for ourselves as children, and it gets this sequel off to a terrific start as the filmmakers look to indulge in the same childlike imagination which they thankfully never outgrew.

The second thing worth pointing out is how this sequel is the first in the MCU to feature a female superhero in the movie’s title. While the DC Extended Universe can only catch up with the MCU in terms of quality and box office success, they are certainly ahead in terms of battling superhero sexism thanks to the brilliant “Wonder Woman.” It is only now Marvel is getting up to speed with the Wasp, and this is long overdue. It also helps how the Wasp is inhabited a pair of terrific actresses, Evangeline Lilly and Michelle Pfeiffer. Both provide this film with strong heroic characters who overcome their internal and external conflicts to make the world a better place for everyone including immigrants, legal and illegal.

Paul Rudd is one of the most likable dudes in the public eye right now, so it is hard to think of another actor who could inhabit Scott Lang to where we are more than willing to forgive his criminal trespasses. His wonderful sense of humor infects every scene to where he sneaks in jokes we do not see coming. Rudd also has a terrific moment where Scott’s body is inhabited by another, and it is almost as inspired as when Lilly Tomlin invaded Steve Martin’s body in “All of Me.” More power to you Mr. Rudd.

However, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is almost stolen from Rudd by Michael Pena who returns as Luis. After suffering through the cinematic misfire which was “CHiPS,” Pena gets to use his comedic talents to much better effect here as he speeds through his dialogue with crazy energy while his character gets to experience what it is like to be a superhero with great glee. He is a riot here as he is forced to confess to a wide series of events under duress, and seeing him paint a vivid, if not entirely accurate account, of things past, provides this sequel with fantastic moments.

This time, Ant-Man and his companions have not one, but two antagonists to deal with. One is Ava Starr, a.k.a. Ghost, who has the power to phase through objects which was the result of being afflicted with molecular instability. Ava is played by Hannah John-Kamen who creates a complex portrait of a person whose affliction was not of her own doing, and as someone who acts out of desperation as her life, which has been filled with more pain than pleasure, looks to be cut short. While her goals conflict with those of Ant-Man and the Wasp, Kamen makes us see how Ava can be devilish as well as a victim of circumstances, and she gives a very strong performance as a result.

The other antagonist is Sonny Burch, a black market criminal eager to exploit Hank Pym’s technology for his own benefit. Sonny is played with great relish by Walton Goggins who has shown a flair for delivering dialogue with a special panache in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” and “Inglorious Basterds.” Goggins brings this same flair to “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” and it is fascinating to watch his portrayal throughout. Even as Sonny fumbles about in his attempts to steal what does not belong to him, I could not take my eyes off of Goggins as he makes this villain into more than what he must have seemed like on paper.

Peyton Reed, who directed “Ant-Man,” returns to the director’s chair for this sequel, and I got the feeling he had a little more fun here. No long burdened by having to portray this superhero’s origin story or the inescapable question of how the first movie would have turned out had Edgar Wright not walked away from it, Reed gets to indulge his inner child with “Ant-Man and the Wasp” to where this sequel could almost pass for a children’s movie. Having said that, there is plenty for adults to enjoy as we watch these characters battle the bad guys and change the size of things and themselves to an amazing degree. Are there lapses in logic? Sure, but who cares?

Many in Hollywood like to talk about counterprogramming as studios are always carefully looking at when they can release the smaller indie movies in the wake of all these big budget blockbusters. In a sense, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is Marvel’s way of counterprogramming against itself as it positions this sequel as an easy going alternative to “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Black Panther.” Whereas those two were among the biggest films in the MCU, this one is more like a nice rest stop where we can enjoy ourselves for a few hours and not worry too much about the other Avengers whose fates have yet to be permanently sealed. Some may consider this a disposable Marvel movie, but after ten years, it is clear how none of them can be the least bit disposable.

And yes, there are a couple of post-credit scenes, and if you are curious to see where this Marvel movie takes place in comparison to “Avengers: Infinity War,” one will answer this question in a way which will leave you with a great deal of anxiety. This anxiety ends up increasing with the movie’s coda which adds a question mark to the proceedings in the same way “Flash Gordon” did back in 1980. Yes, “Ant-Man and the Wasp” is designed to be a fun time at the multiplex, but it is in no position to leave any of these Avengers off the hook.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Deadpool 2’ Ups the Ante and Leaves You Begging for More

Deadpool 2 poster

I want to say that when “Deadpool” was released, it was a breath of fresh air in a time of endless comic book/superhero movies, but this description doesn’t do it justice. The air coming from the 2016 box office hit was filthy, and we loved how Ryan Reynolds, Tim Miller and company refused to play it safe with this Marvel Comics character to where a PG-13 rating just wasn’t going to do it for them. But in addition to being so gleefully profane, the movie also had a big heart as it ended with a message of loving someone inside and out instead of just admiring what is on the surface. If there ever was an R-rated movie for today’s teenagers to sneak into, “Deadpool” was it.

Now we finally have its long-awaited sequel, “Deadpool 2,” which was preceded for the longest time by a pair of jokey trailers which didn’t have much in the way of new footage, but instead put its wisecracking hero in situations which didn’t always put him in the best light, and we laughed our asses off all the same. Surely this sequel couldn’t match the inventiveness and comedic genius of the original, right?

Well, I am very happy to report that “Deadpool 2” proves to be just as funny and entertaining as its predecessor, and in some ways, I thought it was even better. While this one looked as though it would suffer from overkill as the recent “Kingsman” sequel did, everyone in front of and behind the camera keeps the energy level high and the laughs coming in rapid succession. With Reynolds constantly breaking the fourth wall and a plot which refuses to make clear right away of where this sequel is heading, I was never sure of what would come next. As a result, I could never take my eyes off the screen.

So, what has Wade Wilson/Deadpool been up to since his last expletive-laden adventure? Quite a bit actually, and it has thrust him into a realm of despair he doesn’t see himself escaping from. What ends up giving him a reason to live is helping to protect Russell Collins (“Hunt for the Wilder people’s” Julian Dennison), a young mutant who goes by the name of Firefist for reasons which become immediately clear to where Pyro’s penchant for lighting everything up pales in comparison. But in the process, they are both met by Nathan Summers/Cable (Josh Brolin), a time-traveling cybernetic mutant soldier who is looking to right a terrible wrong, and his main target might not be who you think.

The amount of pop culture references is countless in “Deadpool 2,” and you may need to watch this sequel twice to catch all of them. Right from the start, Wade wastes no time in skewering popular icons like Wolverine who made his swan song in last year’s “Logan.” From there, we watch as this particular comic book character lays waste to gangsters to the tune of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” gleefully provides a spoof of the James Bond opening titles which include such classics as “directed by one of the guys who killed the dog in ‘John Wick,’” and he makes you look at Barbara Streisand’s song “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” from “Yentil” in a very unnerving way. Also, he is quick to call you out on obvious references such as a line from “Robocop,” and by that, I mean the original, not the remake. Whether it’s a good or bad guy you are talking about here, at least they have great taste in movies.

However, the laughs and action come at us so quickly in “Deadpool 2” to where it takes longer than usual to figure out what the movie’s main plot is. At times, it seems like the filmmakers are geared towards throwing jokes, action scenes and filthy jokes and the expense of an actual story, and it looks as though we won’t find a story until the third act. Even Wade at one point says if he and his newly-appointed X-Force achieve their goals, there won’t even need to be a third act. Of course, I was having too much with this sequel to criticize this point all that much, and a story does indeed emerge.

Reynolds has come a long way from his “Van Wilder” days to get to this point. He’s given memorable performances in “Buried” and “The Proposal,” but his career has been overshadowed by having starred in one of the worst comic book movies ever, “Green Lantern.” “Deadpool” served as his redemption for that cinematic misfire, and his dedication to staying true to Wade Wilson and his alter-ego has been commendable considering the ill-fated debut he made as this character in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Watching Reynolds here is a reminder of what a gifted comedic actor he can be when given the right material, and it is impossible to picture anyone else in this role instead of him.

Tim Miller stepped out of the director’s chair for “Deadpool 2,” and in his place is David Leitch who assisted Keanu Reeves and Charlize Theron in their path to ass-kicking glory in “John Wick” and “Atomic Blonde.” I was impressed at how he managed to keep this sequel’s energy and laugh quotient up and running throughout as I kept waiting for the whole thing to burst at the seams. It’s no surprise “Deadpool 2” lacks the freshness of the original, but it does have the same level of insane energy and even more to spare beyond it.

And there’s Josh Brolin who appears in his second Marvel movie in two months as Cable. Just as he did in “Avengers: Infinity War,” he gives this iconic comic book character a wounded humanity which makes especially complex and threatening throughout. Even when Cable undergoes a change of alliances which is almost as unbelievable as any in “The Fate of the Furious,” Brolin keeps a straight face throughout the proceedings which become increasingly over the top. It’s also great to see how Brolin has a good sense of humor about himself as he endures barbs relating to “The Goonies,” and looking at his scared face here made me want to say, “Who do you think you are, Thanos?”

It’s also nice to see a variety of new and familiar characters here like Karan Soni whose character of taxi driver Dopinder has developed a bit of a blood lust which Wade is not quick to take all that seriously. Stefan Kapičić gets a bit more to do as Colossus in this sequel as this character does what he can to make Wade a better person. The character of Peter, a regular person with no superpowers, is an inspired addition to this series, and I would love to have seen Rob Delaney play him in more scenes here. T.J. Miller also returns as bar owner and Wade’s best friend, Weasel, but considering his penchant for making fake bomb threats, I believe this will be the last time we see him in this role.

Deadpool 2” could have been too much of a good thing, but I had so much fun with it to where it didn’t matter if it was. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a movie, and it is nice to watch a movie where the jokes hit far more often than they miss. Reynolds, like Ben Affleck, have a strong sense of humor about his past mistakes in the world of cinema, and its fun seeing a movie star crack a few laughs at their own expense However, I am curious as to why he did not lay waste to “Blade: Trinity.” That misbegotten sequel was every bit as bad as “Green Lantern.”

And as always, be prepared for a post-credit sequence which is by the funniest of its kind since “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It is too damn hilarious to spoil here, and you have got to see it for yourself.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *