‘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 * * * *

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‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ Introduces Us to a Real American Hero

Captain America The First Avenger poster

Captain America: The First Avenger” succeeds where “The Green Lantern” utterly failed. It gives us a superhero, one from the Marvel Comics universe, who is distinct from those of his ilk, and he is one we quickly come to care about and root for. Steve Rogers isn’t just some cocky kid from Brooklyn with an overinflated ego. He’s a sickly young man who desperately wants to fight for his country, but who has been rejected by the military countless times. But what he lacks in health and strength he makes up for in spirit. Steve wants to fight for his country not because Uncle Sam wants him to, but because, and he said it himself, he never backs down from a fight.

I liked how this movie didn’t shy from its American roots the way “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra” did. While that movie tried to make you forget the slogan “a real American hero,” “Captain America: The First Avenger” doesn’t do the same. At the same time, it doesn’t beat you over the head with blind American patriotism. It has its share of American pride, but it’s really about the spirit of this unlikely soldier which keeps him sane after he is transformed into a super soldier. The outside may be different, but the inside of this man remains the same to where he sounds like a relation to Robocop.

Playing Steve Rogers/Captain America is Chris Evans who you may remember him from those dopey “Fantastic Four” movies. As for myself, I remember him best for doing a skateboard grind down an icy railing which led to his ultimate demise in “Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.” Evans is perfectly cast and does great work in keeping his character from becoming just another clichéd war hero. His heart shines throughout the entire movie, and he never allows Rogers to become laughable or indulge in behavior which would seem cringe inducing.

Once Steve is turned into Captain America, you root for him to go into battle and defeat the Nazis. But seeing him become a pawn for the United States Government in hawking War Bonds is depressing even when his irrepressible spirit and love for country shines through. We understand his desire to prove himself, and our spirits rise along with his.

Of course, with every superhero movie we get a vicious villain. In this case, this would be Johann Schmidt, Adolf Hitler’s right hand man who is later revealed to be Red Skull. This particular Skull has his own plans for world domination through his organization of HYDRA, and he gets his followers to raise both hands instead of just the one for Hitler. With a stolen tesseract, HYDRA can eliminate their foes faster than those phasers that vaporized all the red shirts on “Star Trek.”

Hugo Weaving portrays Johann Schmidt/Red Skull, and he gives “Captain America” the formidable villain it needs. Still, after being in all “The Matrix” and the “Lord of the Rings” movies, I kept waiting for him to say, “Welcome to Rivendell Mr. Anderson!”

“Captain America: The First Avenger” also has the other requisite characters like the Army drill sergeant and the beautiful woman who dares the most macho men to treat her as just a woman instead of the tough as nails soldier she is. It’s not hard to guess who gets their ass kicked here when other men foolishly hit on her. Still, director Joe Johnston succeeds in getting the best actors available to inhabit these roles and give them life beyond the mere superhero movie stereotypes they could have been.

Tommy Lee Jones is highly entertaining as Col. Chester Phillips, a gruff, no nonsense military leader who expects nothing but the best from his soldiers. Jones, however, gives Phillips a wry sense of humor much like the one Sam Gerard had in “The Fugitive.” Watching him being subtly dismissive of others and later coming around to see Steve Rogers is the man is a hoot, and he never ends up screaming all over the place like R. Lee Emery did in “Full Metal Jacket.”

Then there’s Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter, the female officer who eventually becomes Steve Rogers’ love interest. I really liked how Peggy was drawn out to where she doesn’t just exist for the sake of the movie’s superhero. Atwell sells us completely on her tough demeanor to where it cannot and should not be mistaken as an act, and she travels across the screen with an assured confidence which no one should ever doubt. If they do doubt her, it will say much more about her.

Johnston got the job of directing “Captain America: The First Avenger” based on the period movies he made such as “The Rocketeer” and “October Sky.” There’s a lot of attention paid to detail here (the story takes place 1942 to be exact), but it isn’t held prisoner by it. Heck, many of the tools HYDRA ends up using seem far removed from the 40’s, and they look like they came out of a sci-fi movie made in the 1970’s or 80’s. While Johnston hasn’t made a great movie here, he still has given us an undeniably entertaining one, and it didn’t even need another terrific film score by Alan Silvestri to prove this.

When it comes to the 2011 summer movie season, “Captain America: The First Avenger” isn’t better than “Thor” which for me had far more interesting characters, but it easily outdoes “The Green Lantern” which is one of that year’s biggest disappointments. Thanks to Evans’ performance, Captain America finally gets the cinematic respect this character has long since been denied.

* * * out of * * * *

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X Men Days of Future Past poster

Okay, let me get it out of the way now; “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is not only the best “X-Men” movie since “X2,” but it is also the most entertaining and emotionally powerful film of the franchise to date. For a while, it seemed like the series peaked as the succeeding sequels and prequels were critically maligned to where you wondered if this particular superhero franchise had finally overstayed its welcome. But with Bryan Singer, having been led away by Superman and a giant slayer among others things, back behind the camera again, everything feels fresh and invigorating again, and it’s hard to think of another “X-Men” movie which can top this one.

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” starts off in a very bleak future where sentient robots known as Sentinels have exterminated most of the mutants as well as those humans who have helped them. Not much is left which leads me to believe that in the process of protecting humanity, humans ended up destroying themselves by creating the Sentinels. Time is running out for the remaining X-Men which include Charles Xavier/Professor X (Patrick Stewart), Erik Lehnsherr / Magneto (Ian McKellen), Ororo Munroe / Storm (Halle Berry), Kitty Pryde / Shadowcat (Ellen Page), Bobby Drake / Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and of course Logan / Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and they hide away in a Chinese monastery and prepare to use the only method they can to save all of humanity: time travel.

Charles explains to Logan of how they need to prevent the assassination of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), the military scientist who created the Sentinels, by Raven Darkhölme / Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence). While it is completely understandable for any mutant to hate Bolivar with a passion, his assassination ends up making him a martyr and Raven gets captured and experimented on to where the analysis of her mutant powers help to make the Sentinels all the more effective. So Logan, with the help of Shadowcat, ends up traveling back to the year 1973 to stop Raven from killing Bolivar as he is the only one of the group who can withstand the rigors of time travel. But just when you think this is going to turn into the usual time-travel flick, it becomes anything but.

What I love about the “X-Men” movies are how they focus on character as much as they do on visual effects. The mutants are treated as the outcasts of society, and we feel their pain at being excluded for who they are. Singer understands this pain, and it makes his return to the franchise all the more welcome. Also, there’s something bigger at stake than changing the course of events in time, and that’s preserving hope. While Morgan Freeman said in “The Shawshank Redemption” of how hope is a dangerous thing as it can drive a man insane, the mutants (the good ones anyway) thrive on it because they know no one can live any other way. Even in the darkest of times, they strive to make the world a better place for all of humanity. You feel the weight of the choices they are about to make, and it produced moments which truly left me on the edge of my seat.

After playing Wolverine for so many years, I figured Hugh Jackman would be sick of the character as he remained a moody son of a bitch in. But the great thing about Wolverine this time around is how he and Charles Xavier essentially trade places. In the previous films, Charles was always trying to get Wolverine to look past his anger and bitterness to embrace a better path in life, and now Wolverine has to do the same for Charles. When we catch up with the younger Professor X (this time played by James McAvoy) in 1973, he is a broken man who has regained the ability to walk (don’t worry, there is an explanation) and has become more comfortable being a functioning alcoholic instead of being a teacher. His school is now empty since the Vietnam War took away many of his students, and he spends his days hanging out with Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hout) who tends to his needs.

In some ways, Jackman looks really invigorated this time around as Wolverine proves to be the source of hope the other characters desperately need. He still remains the Wolverine we all know and love, and it’s a lot of fun watching him interact with the cast members of “X-Men: First Class.” Both McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, who plays the younger Magneto, once again make these iconic roles their own without the shadows of Stewart and McKellen hovering over them. It’s also great to see Hout and Jennifer Lawrence back as well as both actors make Beast and Mystique more than just a couple of mere supporting characters.

It’s also great to see a lot of veteran “X-Men” actors here as I was afraid we would never see them together again in the same movie. Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page and Ashmore make their welcome returns count for every second of their screen time. And yes, Anna Paquin does make an appearance as Marie/Rogue. She’s only in the movie for a little bit, but at least she didn’t get cut out of it completely.

The screenwriter of “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Simon Kinberg, and it is based on the famous comic book by Chris Claremont and John Byrne. For a time, I thought this was going to be your typical time travel movie where everything hinges on a pivotal moment in human history, but Kinberg has a few surprises in store for us as the story doesn’t stop at the moment we expect it to. The characters are acutely aware of the ripple effects they can cause in the history of things, and there’s no time wasted on showing how out of place they are in the 70’s as they always seem to be out of place in everyone’s eyes regardless of the decade.

There are also a bunch of new mutants joining the party this time around, and the one which stands out the most is Pietro Maximoff /Quicksilver who is played by Evan Peters. Peters is a gas to watch as his character moves at supersonic speeds around everyone, and he injects a good dose of humor into the proceedings. Singer also features Quicksilver in one of the movie’s most ingenious sequences which is scored to the most unlikely of songs. Seriously, I don’t want to spoil it for you, but it has to be seen to be believed.

Another standout performance in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” is Peter Dinklage’s as Bolivar Trask. Like any good actor, Dinklage keeps Bolivar from becoming another one-dimensional villain as he infuses the character with an arrogance and blind ambition which makes him all the more dangerous. Bolivar believes deeply in what he is doing as he feels it is right, and you come out of the movie pitying him. This is a character who has struggled all his life to get the respect he feels he deserves, and he never gives much thought to the consequences of his actions.

I also got to give kudos to Richard Camacho who plays President Richard Nixon. After watching Frank Langella portray this American President in “Frost/Nixon,” I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to see another actor play Nixon again as anyone else would have simply played him as a caricature. But I was surprised to see how good Camacho was because he didn’t give us the usual Nixon as this movie would have suffered as a result.

But in many ways, the biggest star of this “X-Men” movie is Singer himself. Regardless of his current legal predicament (I’m not even going into that here), he makes a comeback of sorts with this entry as his last few efforts have seen him lose his touch as a filmmaker. No, I haven’t seen “Jack the Giant Slayer,” but I have yet to hear my friends say anything good about it. But just as he did with the first “X-Men” movies, he does a terrific job of balancing out the visual effects with character development, and what results is the most emotionally satisfying comic book blockbuster I’ve ever seen. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” which was really good, set the bar high, but Singer surpasses it by a wide margin with this installment.

After watching “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” you will agree that “X-Men: Apocalypse” can’t come soon enough. Seriously, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” only dreamed of being this good.

* * * * out of * * * *

Logan

Logan movie poster

Watching “Logan” is especially thrilling if you have been keeping up with the “X-Men” movies since the first one came out in the year 2000. While the previous installments played by a certain set of rules, this one smashes through them to create something unique in the long-running franchise. No longer shackled by the PG-13 rating, Hugh Jackman is given free rein to show just how bloody Wolverine can get when you piss him off, and he gives this character, which made him into a movie star, the swan song he deserves.

While the “X-Men” movies were largely science-fiction, “Logan” plays more like a western, and this will become abundantly clear even before characters sit down in a hotel room to watch “Shane.” We catch up with Wolverine, a.k.a. James “Logan” Howlett, in a future not too distant from our own where mutants have long since become an endangered species. Wolverine is now past his prime and works as a limo driver in an effort to save money to buy a boat which he and the ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) can sail away in from all of humanity. While he can still kick ass, he is now hobbled by a bad leg and a dependency on alcohol which eases the pain of surviving in this world for far too long.

The same goes with Xavier who now suffers from a neurodegenerative disease which has turned his telepathic abilities from a blessing into an unstable force people would be best not to be in the vicinity of. When he has an episode, the world around him is threatened in a highly unsettling way, and only Wolverine can give him the medication he needs to stop him from becoming a true weapon of mass destruction.

Then into the picture comes Laura (Dafne Keen), a young mutant who has more in common with Wolverine than he would care to admit or realize. Like the miraculously pregnant woman in “Children of Men,” Laura represents the next step in human evolution, and she needs to be taken to a safe haven for mutants which may or may not exist. On her trail are Reavers, a team of criminal cyborgs hell-bent on wiping mutants off the face of the earth, led by the gleefully sadistic Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) who is not about to let his fandom of Wolverine get in the way of his mission.

What I especially admired about “Logan” is how it dealt with the effects of aging and of people now past their prime. This is s0mething superhero or comic book movies, let alone most Hollywood movies, usually avoid dealing with as the powers that be wish to keep everything looking and feeling youthful. But we are forced to look at Wolverine and Xavier at a point in their lives where they are more vulnerable than ever to their enemies and especially their own mortality. Once they were powerful, but now they are pretty much off-warranty. How does one deal with arriving at a point in life where their bodies start working against them? “Logan” dares to deal with this question, and it does so in a way which is more character driven than ever before but still action packed as ever.

Jackman intends “Logan” to be his last “X-Men” as he has played Wolverine now for over a decade, and he has certainly given the character quite the exit. He even took a pay cut in order to ensure this film would get an R-rating, and it was certainly worth it as it gives him the freedom to make this iconic comic book character a far more blunt and brutal instrument than ever before.

Life is suffering, and no one knows this more than Wolverine who has lived more lifetimes than anyone else around him. Jackman has been brilliant at letting us see the inescapable vulnerabilities which are just beneath the surface of his tough and rugged exterior. Seeing him portray Wolverine at his most wounded is brave as he shows how even the most powerful of superheroes can reach their limit and yet still fight the good fight.

The movie also proves to be a perfect swansong for Patrick Stewart’s interpretation of Charles Xavier as he too portrays this character in a way we never expected. The professor was once a man of significant intelligence and insight, and now he has become a victim of the cruelties of aging none of us are eager to experience. Stewart shows no fear at portraying Xavier in his most disabled state, and while it is painful to see this once great character reduced to a mere shell of who he once was, the great actor is priceless in giving us a man who clings on to the mere gifts afforded to him in a way we all take for granted. It’s a heartbreaking performance, and Stewart plays it without a single faked emotion.

There are also a number of terrific supporting performances here, and the most impressive of the bunch comes from Dafne Keen as the young and deadly mutant, Laura, who befriends Wolverine and Professor X. At the tender age of 11 or 12 years old, Keen is forced to play most of her scenes with no dialogue whatsoever, but she still speaks so many words with even the smallest of facial expressions. It’s a lot to ask of an actor of any age to accept such an acting challenge, but she is more than up to it and gives us a riveting portrayal of a child who has been made to become something no child should ever be made into.

I also admired Stephen Merchant’s performance as Caliban, an albino mutant who can sense and track other mutants. This could have easily been the kind of wimpy character who goes through the usual scenarios of betraying others for his own selfish purposes, but Merchant makes him into much more than that as we see how heavy the consequences of his actions weigh on his conscience. In the hands of another actor, this could have been a throwaway role, but Merchant is too good to let something like that happen.

Boyd Holbrook makes a perfectly hateful yet charismatic villain out of Donald Pierce, Eriq La Salle has some strong moments as a family man who helps out Wolverine and his friends, and Frank Gallegos figures prominently in a small role as a Federale Lieutenant who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time. Please believe me when I say Gallegos is concrete proof of how actors in the smallest of roles can make quite the impression, and he more than does that here.

Directing “Logan” is James Mangold who directed the previous “X-Men” spinoff “The Wolverine” which was easily better than its predecessor, “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Mangold’s films have mostly been studies in empathy about people who have been severely damaged by life, but who still have yet to meet their greatest challenge. Whether it’s Sylvester Stallone’s disabled police officer in “Copland,” the emotionally unstable women portrayed by Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted,” singers Johnny Cash and June Carter in “Walk the Line,” or even Tom Cruise’s eccentric spy in “Knight and Day,” the characters who occupy his films have suffered deep emotional wounds which they will be eventually forced to confront and make peace with whether they want to or not. “Logan” definitely fits in with the themes Mangold has explored throughout his films, and he makes this comic book/superhero an especially enthralling one as we are thrilled as much as we are moved emotionally.

Mangold also breaks free of the rules and conventions the “X-Men” movie franchise has laid out for its various filmmakers, and as a result, it really does feel like a true spin-off compared to the others before it. He gives “Logan” a very gritty feel, but as brutal and bleak as this movie is, it is also filled with hope. While history does repeat itself more often than we would like to admit, we are left with the strong possibility that the next generation of mutants will find a better way to exist in a world with those who have yet to fully trust them.

Seriously, I found “Logan” to be a thing of beauty as it dares to take characters we have grown up watching and put them in situations no filmmaker would have dared to put them in 10 years ago. I came into it thinking it would be the “Alien 3” of the “X-Men” movies as the use of Johnny Cash’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in the teaser trailer implied this would show Wolverine and Xavier at the darkest points in their lives. It certainly does, but it doesn’t leave us in a state of utter depression at its climax. We have come too far to give up on these mutants, and there’s no giving up on them now.

“Logan” proves to be one of the best “X-Men” movies as well as one of the best comic book movies ever made. With this gripping installment, this franchise has found its own version of “The Dark Knight,” and 2017 has already found one of its best motion pictures in only its third month.

* * * * out of * * * *

X-Men: Apocalypse

X Men Apocalypse poster

In the whirlwind of superhero movies which have come out in 2016, “X-Men: Apocalypse” ends up being sandwiched between “Captain America: Civil War” and “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Like those two, “X-Men: Apocalypse” has far too many characters and plotlines to deal with, and its running time is much longer than it needs to be. But while this “X-Men” might not reach thrilling heights of “Captain America: Civil War,” it is far more enjoyable than the dour affair that was “Batman vs. Superman.” Still, after “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” this entry does feel like a comedown for the long running franchise.

The movie takes place in the 1980’s; a time of synth pop, “Knight Rider,” Ronald Reagan and “Return of the Jedi” among other things. The newest threat to both humans and mutants alike is En Sabah Nur, better known as Apocalypse, the world’s first and most powerful mutant. The movie starts off with him being entombed in a rocky grave after being betrayed by his followers, but he is awakened in 1983 and finds humanity has lost its way because, as he sees it, humanity was without his presence. As a result, he vows to destroy the world and remake it, and this time the X-Men may have a foe too powerful for them to defeat.

Playing Apocalypse is Oscar Isaac who enters yet another incredibly successful franchise after leaving his mark on another in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” In a way he is undone here by the large amount of makeup he is forced to wear as it threatens to rob him of his charisma. Seriously, the less makeup you put on Isaac the better as he can lock you in place with just a look from his eyes. Regardless, he is still very good here as he holds his own opposite actors who have been veterans of this franchise for quite some time.

Many of the “X-Men: First Class” cast return as well like James McAvoy, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hout, Michael Fassbender, Rose Byrne and Evan Peters. It’s great to see them all back as they are still deeply invested in these famous comic book characters as always. McAvoy, portraying Professor Charles Xavier/Professor X, shows just how mentally exhausting it is to fight an antagonist with only your mind. We also get to see how Charles lost his hair, and we leave the theater wondering how his eyebrows managed to remain intact.

Lawrence remains an enthralling presence in any movie she appears in, and she makes Raven/Mystique another in a long line of wounded warriors. The Oscar winning actress makes this comic book character into a hero as reluctant as Katniss Everdeen, and we feel for even as she feels she deserves no respect because of her regretful mistakes. While Raven/Mystique has been an antagonist for many of the “X-Men” movies, Lawrence makes her a complex character who comes to see what she must fight for most.

Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto has a setup like Logan/Wolverine had in “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” in which he’s found peace but eventually sees it completely destroyed to where the only thing on his mind is vengeance. It’s a familiar setup we have seen many times, but whether or not you know how Magneto will end up in this mutant tug of war, it’s worth just seeing Fassbender inhabit this role once again as he is riveting for every second he appears onscreen. Compare him all you want to Sir Ian McKellen, Fassbender imbues this iconic comic book character with a lot of raw emotion which will not leave you unmoved.

Evan Peters steals the show once again as Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver, the man who can move at supersonic speeds and yet still lives in his mother’s basement. Peters had one of “Days of Future Past’s” best scenes which was set to the tune of a classic 70’s song, and he does his thing here yet again to an 80’s song. It has been said that the next “X-Men” movie will take place in the 90’s, so we’ll have some time to guess what classic grunge song he will be saving the day to.

A number of other X-Men return as well, but this time played different actors. Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler finally returns to the franchise for the first time since “X-Men 2: X-Men United,” and he is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee who gives the character a good dose of humor. Alexandra Shipp takes on Storm and sports a mohawk which is as fierce as her attitude, so watch out. The terrific Tye Sheridan portrays Scott Summers/Cyclops, and this character gets fleshed out in a way we have not seen previously. “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner appears here as Jean Grey, and it’s great to see the actress portray Jean’s dark side which is her gift and her possible undoing in the future.

With Bryan Singer returning to the director’s chair for his fourth “X-Men” movie, you can’t help but walk into “Apocalypse” with high expectations. Both he and screenwriter Simon Kinberg have too many characters to deal with to where several are not developed fully enough to be satisfying, and others are simply there for dramatic conflict. The mutant hating William Stryker returns, but the character barely registers this time around. We also get introduced to new mutants like Psylocke whose talents seem no different from others like her, and more could have been done to make her stand out. However, it should be noted that Olivia Munn fills out Psylocke’s uniform very well.

But even with its inescapable flaws, Singer still makes “X-Men: Apocalypse” a summer blockbuster packed with action, and the movie also hits you on a deep emotional level. We’ve been following these characters now for nearly a dozen movies, and we still care about their predicaments regardless of whatever timeline they are living through. Other directors in this franchise, with the exception of Matthew Vaughn, have not had the same success in engaging us as Singer has, and he continues to set the bar high for others looking to helm the next entry. And once again, Singer is served well here by his longtime editor and composer John Ottman who gives us yet another rousing music score.

So yeah, “X-Men: Apocalypse” could have been better, but it still works for what it is. It has a serious yet playful tone which has been the mark of many comic book movies in recent years, and it’s better than its score on Rotten Tomatoes would suggest. Regardless of how you feel about this movie, there’s still a lot of life left in this franchise and I am eager to see how the next “Wolverine” movie turns out.

Oh by the way, the filmmakers do pull off a none-too-subtle dig at “X-Men: The Last Stand.” Trust me, you will know it when you see it. Suffice to say, I don’t think Brett Ratner will be returning to this franchise anytime soon.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

* * * out of * * * *

Captain America: Civil War

Captain America Civil War poster

It’s tempting to call this latest Marvel movie “31 short films about The Avengers” as “Captain America: Civil War” manages to cram in so many characters and various storylines into its nearly two and a half hour running in a way which has one wondering why it didn’t burst at the seams. But despite that, it still works as directors Anthony and Joe Russo (who also helmed the superb “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) manage to balance everything out as they combine tremendous superhero action scenes with thought provoking storylines. Whereas “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” didn’t leave much of an aftertaste, “Civil War” proves to be one of Marvel Studios best offerings to date.

Actually, this really should be called “The Avengers Part 2.5” as many of the Avengers are reunited here with the exception of the Hulk, Thor and Nick Fury. “Civil War” starts off a year after “Age of Ultron” as Captain America and company take on the bad guys but, as usual, cause a lot of collateral damage in the process. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) informs them the United Nations are working to establish a panel which will oversee and control The Avengers from here on out. Because of these superheroes’ activities, it’s a good guess many insurance companies went bankrupt while cleaning up what’s left of their mess.

What’s interesting about this is the dynamic it sets up between each superhero character. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is quick to accept this accord as he is still smarting from his creation of Ultron and the destruction caused in Sokovia. However, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) refuses to sign on as he feels any government interference will hinder what he sees as the right thing to do. This sets up an interesting conundrum as the need to control the Avengers is understandable, but with limits set on what they can and cannot do, this could severely affect their ability to save the world, and we know they will need to save it again sooner rather than later.

In the midst of all this, the United Nations building is bombed and the chief suspect is revealed to be Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). But Steve remembers the last time he saw Bucky up close and isn’t sure he’s the evil man everyone else sees him as, and he becomes determined to bring in Bucky himself. But as the movie’s trailers have shown, this will soon erupt into a major conflict for the Avengers as they are forced to take sides to where alliances may be torn apart forever.

We have been submerged in the Marvel Cinematic Universe since 2008 when “Iron Man” was released, and the filmmakers have smartly allowed the characters to evolve from one movie to the next. As much as this is Captain America’s movie, it is also Iron Man’s as we watch his alter ego Tony Stark change his ways, to a certain extent anyway, as he believes the Avengers have done a lot of bad things in the process of saving the world. While he still thinks all too highly of himself, Tony believes the team does need some supervision in order to keep it in line, and this is something he never would have suggested in the previous “Iron Man” movies.

When “Captain America: The First Avenger” first came out in 2011, many expected that the character would be the dullest Avenger as the comics showed him to be a straight arrow and overly patriotic. But with “The Winter Soldier” and “Civil War,” Captain America has become the most interesting character in this cinematic universe as his morality remains strong and unbreakable. A lot of that is thanks to Evans who invests the character with an unshakable pride and thoughtfulness which makes Steve Rogers more authentically heroic than other superheroes currently occupying your local multiplex.

In addition to Iron Man, the other Avengers who turn up include Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). The Russo brothers are smart not to waste time introducing these characters as we have long since gotten to know them and need no explanation as to who they are. It’s great to see them here, and the actors portraying them continue to do excellent work.

As for the new superheroes in “Civil War,” each makes a memorable impression. Chadwick Boseman comes onboard as T’Challa, prince of the African nation of Wakanda who is later revealed to be Black Panther. Boseman imbues his character with a wounded pride which threatens to get the best of him, and he ends up in the middle of the Avengers’ conflict to where he might lose himself in anger and bitterness. The wonderful Elisabeth Olsen also shows up as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch whose powers include harnessing magic and engaging in hypnosis and telekinesis. Olsen shows us a superhero slowly coming into her own as she is conflicted on how to use the abilities she has been gifted, or perhaps cursed, with, and she makes the character both flawed and sympathetic.

But make no mistake, the big addition in “Civil War” is Peter Parker and his beloved alter-ego of Spider-Man. After the abominable cinematic mess that was “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” the character has been rebooted yet again, but this time it may prove to be a good thing. Tom Holland now takes on the role of this web slinger and, like Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield before him, succeeds in making it his own as he creates a character who is wonderfully cheeky and super enthusiastic. Spider-Man isn’t onscreen a whole lot, but Holland is a big delight as he leaps all over the place with great abandon. Suffice to say, this bodes very well for this character’s future.

“Captain America: Civil War” is what “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” promised but failed to be: a riveting motion picture featuring two superheroes who are prepared to fight to the death. It is also an improvement over “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” which, while not bad, failed to live up to expectations. The Russo brothers revel in showing these superheroes doing battle with one another, and they also provide them with a dramatic scenario which will forever test their relationships. I can’t wait to see how the events here will affect the next Marvel movie as the cinematic universe now enters a new phase which looks to be more interesting than what came before. Captain America and Iron Man don’t have mothers named Martha, so it may take a lot for them to get back on the same page.

* * * ½ out of * * * *