Tag Archives: superhero

Review: ‘Black Panther’

dfn_black-panther_300More than 50 years after his creation as a comic book character, Black Panther has finally made the leap to the big screen under the direction of Ryan Coogler. It’s a spectacular debut for the character and an impressive step forward for the director.

In his feature debut, Fruitvale Station, Coogler drew from real-life inspiration to recreate events that were truly infuriating and monstrously evil. He then reinvigorated the Rocky Balboa franchise with Creed by centering it around a son who has lost his father and is seeking to forge his own persona. Both films integrated social issues into their narrative fabric quite naturally, even though Creed was angled more as a sports drama.

Coogler’s increasingly confident direction ensures that Black Panther is often mesmerizing, at least in the extended scenes that lie in between its action sequences. He brings social issues to life with a firm sense of what’s at stake. Written by Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, Black Panther taps into a similar fount of familial loss and long-simmering, righteous bitterness as Coogler’s earlier efforts, and again revolves around Michael B. Jordan.

It should be noted that Jordan is playing, not the protagonist but an antagonist, an initially mysterious young man who is first seen in association with brazen criminal Orlando Klaue (Andy Serkis). By far, Jordan ends up playing the most significant, if off-putting, individual in the movie, though much of the film takes place from the perspective of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). His father was killed in a previous Marvel blockbuster, which means he is now expected to assume rulership in the nation of Wakanda.

In the opening moments of the film, we learn that Wakanda is one of the few places on earth where the rare metal known as vibranium can be found, enabling a rich trove of technological wonders to be developed, and enabling the country to provide all that its native citizens need (or want). To protect its own interests and prevent other nations from intruding/stealing their treasured assets, Wakanda has maintained a policy of strict secrecy about their true assets. To outsiders, Wakanda appears to be a “third-world” country, awash in poverty with nothing to offer in trade with other nations.

But on a planet where millions of disadvantaged people far outnumber the privileged few, is Wakanda’s policy safe or selfish? Is is time for revolution? Or will T’Challa follow the course endorsed by his father?

The most immediate and noteworthy feature of Black Panther is that nearly all the roles are portrayed by people of color. While there are a couple of white faces that pop up in supporting roles, they are really of no consequence to the overall narrative arc that director Coogler is telling.

That in itself is refreshing for a superhero movie, but even more important is that the story is vital, relevant, and layered. More so than other Marvel comic book movies, Black Panther is meaningful for its characters as well as to the giant world that lives outside the boundaries of Wakanda.

It’s meaningful, for example, when T’Challa must defend his right to rule without the aid of the enhanced powers that mark a superhero. It’s purely one individual pitted against another, which makes him all the more relatable. It’s meaningful that Okoye (Danai Gurira) leads the Dora Milaje, a fierce fighting force that is entirely female; they defend the throne and the nation, and their loyalty and fighting skills are not questioned.

Not that the film is entirely a sober affair. T’Challa has a good, loving relationship with his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett) and his younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), a tech wiz who more than holds her own on screen, as well as Nakia (Lupita Nyong’0), a former romantic interest who remains a friend.

All the actors add their own grace notes to their performances. Really, the only area is which the film falls back a bit is in its reliance on visual effects to play a primary role in the action sequences, a common shortcoming in recent superhero movies.

Beyond that, however, Black Panther truly stands out for the strength of its dramatic convictions, which bolster its high degree of entertainment value. It’s a serious film that’s a pleasure to watch.

The film opens on Friday, February 16, in theaters throughout Dallas and the known world.

Review: ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’

dfn-xmen_apocalypse_ver18-300The best superhero movie of the year (so far), X-Men: Apocalypse is a reflection of director Bryan Singer’s strength in storytelling.

Based on a screenplay by Simon Kinberg — with story credit to Singer, Kinberg, Michael Dougherty and Dan Harris — X-Men: Apocalypse makes it easy enough to pick up the story threads from the film’s two immediate predecessors in the long-running series. The initial sequence follows on directly from a post-credits scene in X-Men: Days of Future Past, providing an origin story for the titular, all-powerful mutant En Sabah Nur, also known as Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac).

Events then move forward to 1983, ten years after the main thrust of X-Men: Days of Future Past. The primary heroes are introduced: Mystique, aka Raven (Jennifer Lawrence); Professor X, aka Charles Xavier (James McAvoy); and Beast, aka Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult). They are soon joined by neophytes Nightcrawler, aka Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Jean Grey (Sophie Turner); Cyclops, aka Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), as well as the more experienced Quicksilver, aka Peter Maximoff (Evan Peters) and Havok, aka Alex Summers (Lucas Till), the older brother of Cyclops. There’s also the human CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne), who stumbles upon the resurrection of Apocalypse.

The heroes are introduced as Apocalypse gathers his villainous forces. He needs only four: Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Angel (Ben Hardy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). In the decade that has passed since the previous episode, Magneto has attempted to live as a human, moving to Poland, getting married, having a daughter, and taking a job at a steel factory. Things do not work out, however, making him ripe for Apocalypse’s overtures.

On paper, the film to this point sounds rote and mechanical. On screen, however, it is anything but that. Singer is marvelous at creating a universe that makes superheroes feel very human. For the most part, they do not consider their powers to be a positive but a negative, something to set them apart from mankind as objects of ridicule and fear.

The thrust of the current trilogy acknowledges the many reasons the mutants have to be unhappy with the state of affairs on Earth, and with their own place in it. Yet it argues in favor of selfless service, of putting the needs of others ahead of their own. True, Moira is one of only two non-mutants who play any kind of role in the movie, and both are kept in the background.

Yet the shared humanity of the mutants unites them in opposition to Apocalypse. Humans have their faults and cannot always be trusted, but compared to Apocalypse, who is determined to wipe away the vast majority and allow only the strongest to survive to build a new civilization with him as their leader, well, humans don’t seem so bad after all.

Despite its title and overall theme, X-Men: Apocalypse maintains a doggedly optimistic viewpoint, incorporating character-based comic relief to keep things from feeling too oppressive. The film also benefits tremendously from Singer’s ability to direct exciting action sequences that are easy to follow from a visual standpoint and also inform the characters and overall narrative. Every scene has a point to make and a purpose to advance, which keeps the film engaging throughout its running time.

Based on comic book characters as it is, X-Men: Apocalypse exudes an essential simplicity — the good guys must defeat the bad guys — and enhances that to the next level of storytelling with elegance, polish and power. That makes it a compelling and satisfying experience.

The film will open in theaters throughout Dallas/Fort Worth on Friday, May 27.

Review: ‘Deadpool’

dfn-deadpool-poster-300Raucous and raunchy, comic book adaptation Deadpool is at its best when it is crude, lewd and rude — which is most of the time.

The opening sequence presents mock main titles over an action scene that’s been slowed down to a crawl. It’s an excellent way to introduce the movie, declaring its intentions plainly and allowing anyone who’s expecting another type of entertainment to exit quickly.

From his first appearance in a 1990 Marvel comic book, created by Rob Liefeld and developed by Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza, Deadpool has been through a number of changes, evolving from villain to antihero while retaining a tendency to wisecrack with a very dark sense of humor, often breaking the fourth wall by talking directly to readers and commenting on the proceedings.

As written by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (the team responsible for Zombieland), directed by visual effects artist Tim Miller in his feature debut, and embodied by Ryan Reynolds, Deadpool on the big screen feels very much at home when it mercilessly pokes fun at itself and other superhero movies. The action sequences are edited in the passe style of frantic movement and jagged angles, yet becomes more tolerable because of the lead character’s tendency to pause and comment on what’s happening, pointing out the ridiculous nature of what’s happening.

The movie struggles, however, whenever it rewinds to the painful “origin story,” which by now has become far too familiar to anyone who has sat through more than two superhero screen adventures. In this case, it also undercuts the effectiveness of the satire. The overweening desire to make a hero out of Deadpool does not serve the character well.

During the “origin story” flashback sequences, I kept waiting for Wade Wilson, the character’s given name, to comment on how dreary and self-righteous the flashback sequences were playing out, and how they were following the expected path to justify the excesses carried on in the present day. Instead, they are played straight, which is quite disappointing.

Even so, Deadpool has much to recommend it for certain viewers, especially those who are in tune with its dark and twisted sense of humor. Reynolds’ strengths as an actor are well-matched for the jocular material, and he and Morena Baccarin (as Vanessa, the love of his life) trade sarcastic barbs in an amusing manner. T.J. Miller is his usual witty self as Wade’s male best friend Weasel, a bartender. Ed Skrein (aka The Transporter) is effectively stoic and nasty as the villainous Ajax, with Gina Carano cutting a good figure as his sidekick Angel.

It’s rather surprising to see Leslie Uggams as Blind Al, a woman who becomes Deadpool’s roommate; it’s certainly an earthy performance. On Deadpool’s side, Colossus (a CGI figure, voiced by Stefan Kapicic), a stoic and righteous member of the X-Men, is amusing, as is teenage X-Men trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand).

All in all, Deadpool achieves most of its evident goals, skewering the superhero genre while remaining firmly within its magnetic reach.

The movie opens widely in theaters throughout Dallas on Friday, February 12.

Review: ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’

'Avengers: Age of Ultron'
‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’
Clocking in at 140 minutes, Avengers: Age of Ultron feels like a speed-reading of a trade paperback, collecting together six issues of a story arc, and leaving one exhausted from the experience.

Joss Whedon is a good writer of lighthearted adventure stories but stains himself when reaching for a dramatic gut-punch, most often resorting to weepy sentimentality that fails to pay off in a movie built around extravagant digital battle sequences. Oddly enough, Whedon’s writing is most effective in the comic-book format, where the reader can decide how long to gaze longingly at an exquisitely drawn action scene before darting through jokes and exposition.

It follows that the most impressive moments in Avengers: Age of Ultron are those where the action is slowed down, allowing the viewer to soak in the complicated scenario of flying bodies and objects moving gracefully through the air. Otherwise, the action sequences are in the usual modern style of frenzied activity that is nearly impossible to comprehend until it stops, revealing writhing or motionless bodies.

What remains is a story that sounds borrowed from T2: Judgment Day (which borrowed from other sources): Artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and decides to destroy mankind to protect the future. Here, the self-aware artificial intelligence is known as Ultron and is voiced magnificently by James Spader, who gives Ultron the kind of weary resignation one might expect in a Shakespearean performance.

Accidentally birthed by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) — and by “accidentally,” I mean a wince-inducing coincidence of timing that is embarrassing to behold — Ultron decides first to wipe out the Avengers by creating his own army of mighty andoids. Fortunately for the Avengers, he takes his time about it, allowing them to regroup at a secret location after an initial defeat and mope about their lot in life before hurling themselves back into action.

Whedon’s wit provides, well, comic relief from all the melodramatic character meltdowns. While Whedon’s first stab at a superhero team-up movie functioned as a culmination of what came before, in the form of movies focusing on individual characters and their struggles, Avengers: Age of Ultron feels far more perfunctory, more like an engine idling in someone’s driveway waiting for a long-delayed guest.

With two gal pals — Tony Stark’s better half Pepper Potts, and Thor’s romantic partner Jane — left offscreen, Whedon shifts the romantic focus to Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and her burgeoning relationship with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka Hulk. It’s portrayed as a dynamic coupling, but no erotic sparks fly between them; it’s closer to the comfortable chemistry expected of longtime married folks. Also, there’s no consideration of the riskier aspects involved; after all, what if something upset Bruce while they were making love and he became the Hulk? A broken bed would be the least of her concerns.

Fitting neatly into the limited expectations I had for the movie, Avenger: Age of Ultron is nothing more and nothing less than a big-budget action movie that takes no risks and delivers no surprises. Help yourself.

The film opens wide throughout North Texas on Friday, May 1.

Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy,’ More of the Same From the Marvel Dream Factory

'Guardians of the Galaxy' (Marvel)
‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ (Marvel)
Bright and personable as it is, Guardians of the Galaxy can’t help but feel like another product issued from the Marvel Studios assembly line.

Sure, the characters are not the same — they even have different names! — and only one of the team members is a confirmed member of the Earth-based human race. But for all the green skin and tattooes and animal skin involved, the characters are mix-and-match assemblages of the familiar Marvel personalities. They are defiantly, resolutely likable, darn it, and resolutely unselfish, kind-hearted, and good-humored.

They are the kind of heroes that kids imagine they’ll grow up to be some day. That is, if the kids confine their reading material to Marvel comic books, television shows, and movies.

The 10th installment of the ongoing Marvel Studios saga, Guardians of the Galaxy distinguishes itself in its setting, which, after an emotionally-affecting prologue, takes place entirely in a science-fiction universe. Humans make up only a small percentage of the population, which is pleasant to see, although, for all the different-colored skin and rampant body modifications, English — middle American dialect, please! — remains the predominant language.

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt, friendly and charming) is a bounty hunter who runs afoul of aliens while pursuing his latest treasure. The treasure is highly sought by fellow adventurers Gamora (Zoe Saldana, painted green) and the team of the feisty Rocket Raccoon (given a brisk, brusque old-school New York gangster accent by Bradley Cooper) and sentient tree Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel, evidently for reasons that have more to do with promoting the movie than anything else). The foursome are sent to jail, where they soon befriend the vengeance-minded Drax (Dave Bautista, who sounds like a professional wrestler).

The film functions as an orgin story for the team, with primary emphasis on Peter Quill. They do things that we expect from modern superheroes –fight in quick-cut action scenes, exchange peppy banter, scowl aplenty, stick up reluctantly for one another — but little that we don’t expect from modern superheroes. It’s amusing enough as far as it goes, yet there’s nothing in the movie that’s authentically daring or different; instead, it’s more of the same from the Marvel dream factory.

Director James Gunn, who co-wrote the screenplay with Nicole Perlman, delivers an experience that is familiar, despite the very different settings. The harsher edges that were present in his previous directorial efforts (2006’s Slither and 2010’s Super) have been sanded down to meet the PG-13 rating requirement of Marvel films. Actors who have been distinctive in other roles sacrifice their individuality so as to bring to life one-dimensional comic book characters. Chief example: Karen Gillan as the “evil” Nebula, who is permitted but one expression and one tone of voice.

Guardians of the Galaxy is fine, if anonymous big-screen entertainment from a company that appears intent on a course that is slowly flattening. As long as the money keeps flowing, expect more of the same in the future from Marvel Studios.

The film opens wide throughout Dallas and Ft. Worth on Friday, August 1.