‘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 * * * *

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‘Salt’ Has Angelina Jolie Doing More Than Tomb Raiding

Salt movie poster

Looking back, the summer 2010 movie season was truly the summer of the preposterous action movie. We got the big screen version of “The A-Team” which had four guys trying to steer a parachuting tank with its turret by firing rounds out of it, then there was Tom Cruise who could do just about anything except take the time to go to the bathroom in “Knight and Day” (Jack Bauer had that problem too), and even the brilliant “Inception” employed a concept which is not at all possible (unless the military is trying to keep it a secret). And then there was “Salt” starring Angelina Jolie which runs very rapidly through a river of plot holes and leaps in logic, and it’s just as much fun as the films I just mentioned. Thanks to director Phillip Noyce (“Clear and Present Danger” and “Rabbit Proof Fence”) who keeps things moving at such a fast pace, there’s not much time to sit back and count all the inconsistencies. All we can do is hang on to the edge of our seats and revel in the slam bang action brought to us without an overuse of CGI effects.

Jolie plays CIA agent Evelyn Salt who is just about to head on home to her loving husband Mike (August Diehl) who loves to study spiders when she and her partner Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) suddenly get the opportunity to interrogate a Russian defector. During this interrogation, the defector reveals that a highly trained Russian agent will assassinate the Russian President when he visits the United States. He the name of this agent is Evelyn Salt, and the chase is on from there. Immediately thrown under a veil of heavy suspicion, Evelyn desperately rushes out of the office to find her husband before he disappears from her life forever. Never mind abiding the law or taking the time to explain herself, she wants her husband now! When a woman gets pissed, it is in your best interest not to argue with her, especially if she is a CIA agent!

Evelyn Salt is a mixture of both Jason Bourne and Jack Bauer, and this is especially the case in how she manages to evade capture or break free from highly trained agents and officers on more than one occasion. The movie really plays on Jolie’s strengths throughout, and of the kind of person the media has perceived her to be. I say this because over the years she has been treated like some seriously deranged human being who would have sex with her bother instead of a regular person which she is if anyone actually bothered to notice. Jolie plays on these perceptions throughout “Salt” as we watch her relentlessly pursue those who wish to capture and question her, and also when she changes her appearance to get closer to her objective.

I also liked how by the time she comes to meet the man who will soon become her husband, you can believe she has been fully trained to all she can do. A lot of movies would have you believe these characters were born with these skills and have perfected them since they were toddlers. With Jolie, you never doubt her even as the movie becomes more ridiculous by the minute.

There are so many twists and turns throughout “Salt” to where it shamelessly flaunts its illogic plot developments throughout to where we give up trying to figure it all out. Compared to many of Noyce’s other movies, this is easily the most kinetic action movie he has made to date even when compared to “Dead Calm” which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world. You could complain about how things don’t add up, but Noyce never lets the pace of the movie lag for a second, and we never find the time to sort through the plot and characters while we are watching. For other movies this would be a major hindrance, but for “Salt” it works to its advantage. You’re too thoroughly entertained to even care if this film is messing with our head one time too many.

In addition to the talents of Ms. Jolie, you also have Liev Schreiber as her partner and friend Ted Winter. Many consider Schreiber to be this stone-faced actor who wears the same expression in each and every movie he does, but this is probably because they have never seen him act onstage where he gives one brilliantly inspired performance after another. Schreiber holds his own opposite the formidable Jolie as he desperately works to protect his friend from those who would make her disappear, and you root for him as he gets closer and closer to getting a full idea of who she really is.

You also have Chiwetel Ejiofor as Peabody, an agent above Winter who pursues Salt relentlessly. He’s the character you want to shake around and slap in the face so he can see how wrong he is about her (or how wrong we think he is). Chiwetel has done great work over the years, most notably in Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things,” and he makes Peabody more than your average one-dimensional government official who would foolishly believe a Russian defector over a loyal agent from the CIA.

We also have to give Noyce a lot of credit for not relying on a plethora of CGI effects in “Salt.” When you see Jolie clinging for dear life on her apartment building 12 stories up from the ground, that was really her (get ready for some serious vertigo). It all reminded me of how good “Live Free or Die Hard” was as it tried to make the effects as real as possible as the filmmakers came to realize the typical film going audience would no longer be easily fooled by CGI effects. Sometimes they are not even better than the real thing.

If there is one seriously massive complaint I have against “Salt,” it’s in regards to Andre Braugher’s role as the Secretary of Defense. Those of you who know me are fully aware of what a die-hard fan I am of the NBC cop show from the 1990’s, “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Braugher’s work on the show was beyond brilliant, and not many other actors can manipulate people through such theatrically volcanic explosions of anger. Furthermore, let us not forget his work in movies like “Glory” where he made the first of many memorable impressions. But in “Salt,” he is relegated to a role where he barely has any lines and is given far too little to do. What gives?! You want to cast Braugher in a movie, then you give him a role which is in tune with his well-known talents. Stop giving him roles which could be played by anyone.

Maybe “Salt” is more fun than it deserves credit for. But along with a pulsating music score by James Newton Howard and some tight film editing by John Gilroy and the well-regarded Stuart Baird, the movie gives you a good dose of adrenalin pumping fun which we don’t always get on the silver screen. Nitpick all you want about the events in “Salt,” it’ll still keep you on the edge of your seat throughout.

* * * out of * * * *

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

x-men-origins-wolverine-poster

I was racing to the movie theater, one of the smaller ones in the Los Angeles area, trying to get there before the movie started. My friends were all there waiting on my slow ass, and as usual, I had left my apartment at the last possible minute. Cursing myself and the slow ass drivers placed in my path, I hurried while risking the possibility of getting pulled over. With the economy now being located in the center of the earth while we slowly dig towards it, the police are handing out more tickets than ever. Heaven forbid I make some sort of unnecessary donation to them and miss the film.

Anyway, with an enormous stroke of luck, I managed to make it to the theater just as the trailers were about to start. I was thankful to find my friends who managed to save a seat for me, and I was even more thankful to miss out on all those stupid commercials AMC Theaters feels the need to inflict on us. It is an addictive thrill to get to where you are going just in the nick of time and a hard one to get over (it would help if I did, though). Thank god for Japanese machinery, especially with it having almost 200,000 miles on the odometer.

I bring this up because my maddening drive to get to the theater on time turned out to be far more exciting than the movie I ended up seeing: “X-Men Origins – Wolverine.” It is the fourth movie in the “X-Men” franchise, and the first big movie of summer 2009. But more importantly, it is also summer 2009’s first big disappointment. This has been the case for the past couple of years, with the first big summer movie not meeting expectations.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” takes place years before the first “X-Men” movie, and we get to see the pivotal character of Wolverine as a young boy who ends up committing a violent act he can never take back. As a result, he runs away from home with his half-brother Victor Creed (later to be known as Sabretooth). From there, we get a spectacular opening sequence in which we see the both of them fight in just about every major war they were exposed to throughout their endless lifetimes. From the American Civil War to the Vietnam War, we see them fighting with the other side, taking their hits, and they come out of it all relatively unscathed. Of course, when Wolverine and Sabretooth end up being played by Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber, they stop aging for good. Very convenient for the box office, wouldn’t you say?

With this being a prequel, a lot of the suspense is sucked out right there because we all know Wolverine is going to survive this adventure and go on to experience many more. Granted, some prequels can be exciting and leave you hanging on the edge of your seat (“Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” is a perfect example), but it takes a really good script and precise direction to suck you into the present tense of the movie you are watching. The more you as an audience member are sucked into the moment, the more you forget about the film which chronologically comes after it. But since this franchise has been around since the early part of the 2000’s, we have come to know these characters all too well. We know what will happen to them eventually, and we end up spending too much time trying to connect the dots between this and the other “X-Men” movies. It makes this origin movie a lot less exciting as a result.

Seriously, this is “X-Men” meets “The Punisher” when you take a close look at the story. We see Wolverine working as a lumberjack after having left special ops six years ago, and he lives with his girlfriend Kayla Silverfox (the lovely Lynn Collins) in a secluded cabin up in the hills of Canada, but the past, of course, catches up with him like we expect it to. Logan (Wolverine’s real name) is approached by William Stryker (Danny Huston playing the same character Brian Cox played in “X-Men 2”) to get back into action because Victor/Sabretooth is on the loose. Logan says no, and this had me rolling my eyes because we all know Kayla is going to get murdered by Victor, and this will make Wolverine become thirsty for revenge. In doing so, he will be forced to alter his body to where he will become the indestructible animal we already know him as through the previous installments.

One of the movie’s real stumbling blocks is both Wolverine and Sabretooth are presented as indestructible. No matter how many bullets are shot at them or how many times they get stabbed, we know they will get back up and heal themselves in a matter of seconds. This knowledge affects the movie’s big action sequences because, regardless of whether or not they get the bad guys, we know they will come out of it all unscathed. We also know Sabretooth is not going to get his due justice at the end of this story. It gets to where you expect either of these characters to start singing “Shoot Me Again” by Metallica. You know how that one goes, right?

“Shoot me again, I ain’t dead yet!”

In terms of performances, Hugh Jackman still delivers the goods as Logan/Wolverine. If you think his successful stint as host of the Oscars might have softened him, you needn’t worry. Even with a script which deals with elements we have seen in other movies like this one, he gives this comic book hero a real heart and soul just as he did before. Starting off an “X-Men” prequel series with this character wasn’t a bad idea, but it’s a shame the filmmakers did not give him a more original and compelling story.

Liev Schreiber also does solid work here as Victor Creed/Sabretooth. While the script could have given the character a little more dimension, Schreiber makes the character an effectively dangerous rival with a never-ending bloodlust, and he keeps our interest along with Jackman throughout the movie’s two hour running time.

The other actors don’t fare as well. Danny Huston’s portrayal of William Stryker lacks the complex nature Brian Cox brought to the role previously. The fact Stryker’s son is a mutant is brought into this film as an afterthought, and it leads to one of the character’s more ludicrous moments. Stryker’s fate at the end of the film doesn’t make much sense either because you can’t help but wonder how he managed to become such a powerful military leader by the time we see him in “X-Men 2.”

Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson/Deadpool, and it is same kind of character he played in the dreadful “Blade: Trinity.” While I got a kick out of Reynolds’ sardonic wit and lightning speed with swords, his appearance in “Wolverine” feels like a wasted opportunity. Reynolds ends up disappearing from the movie too quickly, and we don’t see him again until much later. This leaves us with mutants who are nowhere as interesting as the ones we met in the previous “X-Men” movies. Characters like Agent Zero (played by Daniel Henney) are so one-note, they cease to be interesting almost immediately.

In fact, this is my biggest beef with “X-Men Origins: Wolverine;” it has an utter lack of character development. The three previous films gave us characters to care about as soon as they appeared onscreen. Bryan Singer, who directed the first two films, really took the time to make us feel what these characters were going through as they were cruelly branded as outcasts. We sympathized with their struggles as they worked with Professor Charles Xavier to co-exist peacefully with humans. This made the action sequences all the more exciting; we worried about these characters getting hurt. It was like we got hurt along with them.

But with this newest “X-Men” movie, these characters cease to be as interesting as they once were. They exist here as a means to an end, to guide Wolverine to the point where we first met him. We get introduced to some cool characters like Gambit, but it feels like he is being given only a test run here to see if he will be popular enough to include in future installments. More attention is paid here to the spectacle than anything else, and it shows. There are some great visuals to be found here for sure, but without stronger characters, they just come across as empty. There is no visceral feeling to them, and not much risk is on display.

“X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was directed by Gavin Hood who previously directed the Oscar-winning “Tsotsi” as well as “Rendition” which starred Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal. I’m not sure how much of the blame he should take for this one. Word is the production was troubled and that executive producer Richard Donner took over directing duties for a few scenes, and the script was constantly being rewritten (no surprise there). I guess by bringing in an indie director like they did with Singer, the producers were hoping to bring a fresh new perspective to the long-running franchise. But Hood’s direction is not exemplary here in the way Singer’s was, and he makes this nothing more than an average action movie. There is nothing really special he accomplishes here which could have made this particular comic book movie more unique.

Indeed, there are many twists towards the end which serve to define the character of Wolverine. But the more they came, the less I believed them. There are gaps in logic I am willing to forgive in movies, but once I start thinking about them while watching what unfolds onscreen, I will undoubtedly have some serious issues. Some plot twists would have required years of preparation for the characters to pull off, and I can’t see any of them thinking that far into the future. Much more attention should have been paid to the script, and the characters should have been given top priority. They also should have given this film a much different story than an average one of a man scorned by the loss of love and the need for vengeance. The conflicted hero act worked for a while, but now it feels old, old, old.

It’s hard to dissuade you “X-Men” fans from seeing this movie, so I’m not going to try. Granted, I’ll be interested to hear what you all think of it. You may end up enjoying it far more than I did. Jackman is great as always, but his performance is not enough to save this scripted mess. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” should serve as a warning for future origin movies in how they should and should not be made. Seeing Wolverine before he goes on his Jason Bourne-like mission takes many of the character’s mysteries away and renders him far less intriguing. Sometimes it is better to not know so much about where certain people come from.

* * out of * * * *

 

The 5th Wave

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The 5th Wave” comes to us not long after the conclusion of “The Hungers Games,” and it is the latest in a seemingly endless line of young adult book to film adaptations. As a result, I came into this movie feeling worn out even before it started. While the novel it is based on, written by Rick Yancey, might be an interesting read, what unfolds onscreen feels like the same old thing. Only the names and places have been changed to protect the filmmakers from potential lawsuits.

Chloe Grace Moretz stars as Cassie Sullivan, a young teenager (is there any other kind?) who lives a normal life with her family, attends high school where she’s a cheerleader and constantly deals with unrequited love like any other child held prisoner by adolescence. But suddenly an alien ship, which looks like something out of “District 9,” appears in the sky, and the Earth goes through four waves which leave it decimated and on the verge of extinction. All Cassie has left is her brother whom she ends up getting separated from, and from there she is determined to save him from a fate many others have suffered.

This movie does not get off to a good start as the visual effects used to convey the various waves are shoddy CGI, and some scenes end up looking like outtakes from “Independence Day” or any other Roland Emmerich production. When the plot finally gains momentum, Cassie finds herself on the run and forced to defend herself in ways she never planned. She’s also looking for her brother whom she is very close to. Doesn’t this sound like something we just saw?

It’s a shame because the movie does have Moretz who makes this mess more bearable than it should be. Her breakthrough performance in “Kick-Ass” was no fluke and she continues to do strong work in each film she appears in, regardless of whether they are good or bad. She makes Cassie a strong heroine and one whom kids around the same age will easily relate to as she fends for herself in the dangerous world everyone has been thrust into, and Moretz makes you root for her throughout. But even she can’t save this routine young adult movie which has come out way too late.

Actually, what’s especially interesting about “The 5th Wave” is how the female characters are far more interesting than the male ones. It also helps they have such terrific actresses inhabiting those characters, and each of them clearly relishes the opportunity to bring them to life. Maria Bello, sporting a very funky hairdo, makes Sergeant Reznik a slyly manipulative soldier as she forces the children to see the alien threat her way to where getting them to fight for the human race is easy as cake. Maika Monroe, so good in “The Guest” and “It Follows,” makes her character of Ringer a wonderfully tough warrior, and she also skillfully unveils the other layers of Ringer to show us a person who is deeply broken. Along with Moretz, they keep “The 5th Wave” from becoming a complete bore.

The male actors, however, don’t have much to work with and their performances suffer as a result. Nick Robinson plays Ben Parish, the high school football hero who, when he is forced to enlist in the military, is nicknamed Zombie. Zombie proves to be an appropriate name as Robinson has little choice but to give a one-note performance as much of the emotion Ben has experienced in life has long since been drained from his psyche. Then there’s Alex Roe who plays Evan Walker, a man who may not be all that he appears to be. It seems like the screenwriters had some trouble in trying to figure out what to do with this character, and that leaves Roe with little choice but to make Evan far more enigmatic than the character has any right to be.

And let’s not leave out the great Liev Schreiber, wonderfully understated in “Spotlight,” as the movie’s main antagonist Colonel Vosch. It’s no surprise Schreiber can give us such a menacing villain, but there really isn’t much of a character for him to play here. Vosch is merely here as an obstacle for Cassie to overcome, and as a result the actor is wasted in a role which is too unworthy of his talents.

Then there is the love triangle between Moretz, Robinson, and Roe, and after having been subjected to a very similar one between Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth in “The Hunger Games,” I could have cared less about it. I imagine it will give audiences much to swoon over, but it’s a romance that is bland as the male characters in this movie.

“The 5th Wave” was directed by J Blakeson who previously gave us “The Disappearance of Alice Creed,” a neo-noir thriller about the kidnapping of a woman by two ex-convicts. His direction on that film was much lauded by the press, and it makes me wonder just how much control he had over this project. Clearly, the studio is setting this up to be another franchise of movies for young adults to become obsessed over as a sequel to “The 5th Wave” has already been published and a third book is on the way. But it all depends of course on how this one does at the box office and considering how we are all still getting over the end of “The Hunger Games” movies, I’m not sure everybody is in a rush for yet another franchise like it.

Perhaps the target audience for “The 5th Wave” will enjoy it the most, but even they have to be outgrowing these kinds of movies at this point. Sooner or later we have to realize kids grow up and become adults, and even adults can save the world and their little brothers too.

* ½ out of * * * *