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“Infinity War” starts on a bang…and ends on a whimper

From the moment the lights went up during the end credits, I did not feel a sense of optimism or joy. I turned to the left and right, noticing many kids, and Marvel fans, upset and/or in tears. Even the post-credit scene didn’t add any sign of hope. I’m certain it did set-up the future debut of a certain Marvel character, but at that point, I really didn’t care. For the first time in my life, I felt great disappointment in a Marvel movie and I have to thank “Avengers: Infinity War” for giving me that feeling.

For a good bulk of the first half, “Infinity War” really does feel like a Marvel movie. There is a fight scene in the city and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) delivers some funny one-liners. However, midway that joyful and light-hearted tone takes a noise dive going for a more darker concept. Those who want to get an idea, look up “Dalek Master Plan” and you will see what I mean.

Even in theaters, this is a hard movie to critique and talk about when the whole thing feels like one massive spoiler. There are certain story elements and sequences that make it tough for me to elaborate on and that might be hard to discuss when some wish to go in blind. So, I will try my best to be spoiler-free as I can here.

The first thing I should talk about is Thanos, a evil purple skinned and muscle bound alien that wants to conquer the universe. He is played by James Brolin under all that motion capture effects and does the job well. They give a reason for his tyrannical nature that doesn’t make him feel one-sided. He is a villain that will do anything in his power to obtain a bunch of powerful gems known as Infinity Stones. And when I mean anything, I mean, by God, ANYTHING. This not only makes him the darkest, but also the scariest being to ever hulk on the big screen.

As expected, there are some nice team ups, as Thor groups with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Iron Man works off of Doctor Strange, the list kind of goes on. But for a 2 and a 1/2 hour movie, there is the sense that some characters feel underplayed. A prime example is Black Panther. After “Captain America: Civil War” and his own solo movie, you think he would play a major part in this. However, he gets saved for the big finale at the end, when maybe some of his expertise could have been used earlier.

Did I mention this movie is long? Length is an expected criticism for a feature like this, but there are some things I felt that could have been shorten down or made more simpler. I feel like they are trying to make something grand or epic, like the “Lord of the Rings” franchise. It does make sense when you think about it. We have had 18 Marvel Comic movies within the past 10 years. And yet, it suffers the same  fate of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies by going too big and too grand. The pacing for certain storylines feel somewhere between too complex or not fleshed out enough.

And that falls onto the final nail in the coffin I have with this entry. Yes, the action scenes are good. Yes, it feels nice to see other characters work off each other. But what it lacks is a sense of heart or, to a lesser extent, a solid conclusion. I guess they are planning to resolve many things in another movie, seeing one is coming out next year. However, here is my argument. “Back to the Future: Part II” and “Empire Strikes Back” did have cliffhangers, but they felt hopeful. They gave you a feeling that you knew problems were going to be resolved and indicated a sense of good under a mass of darkness.

Here, they go straight to the wall and let things conclude on a downer note. I admit, I was really caught off guard by this. But after sitting through so much fighting and superhero banter, to end it all on a whimper is the last thing I would ever do. Certain characters die off and it really makes you feel like this is the end. From all the fatigue of fighting and arguing, could they at least end it on a note of hope?

And furthermore, there are too many open holes to let this end on. How did this character from (movie name withheld) end up here? How come this guy can’t use his powers anymore? What happened here? What happened there? Why even care when we are given this big of a tease and left with little to no sign that good will rise up? It makes movies like 1974’s “Earthquake” more joyful in comparison. OH YEAH, I went there!

We go to movies to escape from our own reality. We want to join in on the adventure and enjoy the ride. All of the pain from our reality deserves to be nullified for a good 2 hours or at least something longer. That is my own personal view of what a movie should be to me. And yes, once in a while, I will go for something darker, but there is a point to the existence of why it is there. Movies are a dream-like thing with shadows of character that hope not to offend their viewers. And if they do so, man…do we feel cheated in the end….

“Captain America: Civil War”explodes with fun and emotion

captain_america_civil_warAfter watching “The Winter Solider” right before seeing the new entry in Marvel’s line-up, I had a feeling it would be a tough act to follow-up a sequel that is edgy and asks if the famed stars and stripes superhero is a symbol of his country or something else. The idea of comparing and contrasting him and his old friend, Bucky was a unique element. How S.H.I.E.L.D was using Steve Rodgers (Chris Evans) despite giving some leeway in contrast to Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) who is so brainwashed to the point you can’t tell if he’s good or bad. “Winter Solider” was packed with plenty of action, but something felt lacking. I wanted it to go deeper into the psyche of Steve as well as where he stands in a world of superheroes. Long story short, thank goodness “Civil War exists. It easily trumps the old saying that “lightening rarely strikes twice.” And already, it’s become my 2nd favorite Marvel movie next to “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Chris Evans returns as the thawed World War II veteran who is caught in a huge cross fire. As it turns out, the damage made in his previous Avengers victories were causing more harm than possible with lives lost during their battles. The government plans to crack down on the superhero business, but all that changes when Steve’s buddy Bucky gets in the mix. Without spoiling too much, a series of assassinations leads to the Winter Solider’s blame while Steve thinks otherwise.

This part of the story alone sets up a unique mystery that keeps us guessing to the very end. When the story is not engaged in fist-fighting, things take a back seat as we try to connect the clues behind the true mastermind. Is this Bucky’s real doing or is something else in play here? Again, without giving too much away, when we do find out the truth, the answer is satisfying and certainly shocking. Dare I say, “Civil War” has one of the most biggest twists in all of film history and already I’m in shock about how well it plays out. Rarely does my jaw drop to the floor, but this has to be one of the few moments in my life a reaction like that was needed.

As for everything else, viewers will be treated to a very serviceable and explosive summer blockbuster. Every character motive has a purpose to exist on why one is after another. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) is upset over Steve’s will  to co-operate as Steve feels the country he serves is starting to not feel the same as it once was. This gives all the more reason for these two to duke it out. We’re not just interested in seeing who has the upper hand, but get reasons for why these two can’t compromise. It makes the drama more intense considering how used we are seeing Tony and Steve play off each other like close college buddies.

As for the fight scenes, they are satisfying and serviceable. Each one is well-choreographed and packs with edge. The best one is easily the brawl at the airport as Marvel characters ranging from Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) take sides with each team having equal advantages. Both have one who is inventive while another has supernatural abilities like Vision (Paul Bettany). With both sides evenly matched, it makes this fight scene the more enjoyable to watch as each one tries to outwit each other.

Surprisingly, the biggest highlight I found was not Tom Holland making his first incarnation as Peter Parker/Spider-Man. Though granted, I thought he was a great fit coming off of Toby Maguire’s decent run and the disastrous Andrew Garfield (less said the better.) For me personally, the biggest thing I’m taking away is Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Black Panther. In a way, I felt like I was watching the origin of the character even if I knew little about him. His character arch fits nicely with the one of many themes about the effects of vengeance. Boseman was sleek, bold and very intimidating when it came to his moments on why he has a beef with Bucky. In a nutshell, I hope this character gets his own movie, because Boseman deserves it.

And as said before, Tom Holland is a surprisingly good fit for the web head. In hindsight, the filmmakers should have opted for a younger incarnation. Holland is able to carry the charisma as well as be crass yet likable. He isn’t annoying and I found myself laughing at every quip and joke they threw at him. Despite his purpose being nothing but an extended cameo, I am more than curious to see how well Holland does in his future solo film.

As for the rest of “Civil War,” I really can’t praise too much. Though if I did have to nitpick, the first 20 minutes are a tad slow and some odd editing choices are made (like having the name of countries be told to us in BIG WHITE LETTERS THAT SPAN ACROSS THE SCREEN.) But more curious are the allusions and references to “The Empire Strikes Back.” I don’t know if this was intentional, but I did find them interesting to be honest. Truly we get a sequel that is powerful, fun and emotionally gripping. In a way, I wish this was the movie “Batman Vs Superman” tried to be and failed in the end. “Civil War” is well written, packed with action and knows when to linger between comedy and tragedy. If you want a grand start to the summer, this is an explosive start.

“Ant-Man” is bite-sized fun

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) tests out his new abilities as the Ant-Man in the latest fun romp from Marvel

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) tests out his new abilities as the Ant-Man in the latest fun romp from Marvel

Ever since Marvel came on the scene with their Cinematic Universe, Hollywood has never been the same. Who would think such simple concepts like a man who can get big during his anger or a Norse god with family issues become box-office gold? Not to mention, the studio is also testing the waters with unknown characters to see if there is some franchise potential. “Ant-Man” happens to be one of them and it nearly succeeds despite some flaws.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a bugler with a heart of gold who is looking for redemption and be a hero in his young daughter’s eyes. Only problem is that one big “steal from the rich” heist landed him in jail and a distant and divorced relationship with his wife. Paul really channels the wise-cracking tone of Robert Downey Jr but you also really care for him. He understand the problems the character is going through and will risk anything to get his family back together and his name cleared of crimes.

Unfortunately, that all changes when a professor played by Michael Douglas asks him to pull off a huge heist that not only keep a big invention under wraps but also save the world. Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas) has invented a suit that is powered by a serum that can shrink a man down to the size of an ant while also be giving superhuman strength. Sounds silly on paper but looks good when executed.

Problems are afoot when an evil tycoon (Corey Stoll) has taken over Hank’s labs in hoping to duplicate his powerful suit for militant purposes and other assorted evil plans. The motive is very misty but its another situation where apprentice sees and tries to overcome his mentor. Its a basic motive that really doesn’t have much driving power. Without giving too much away, there’s an explanation about the chemicals of the shrinking serum messing with his brain but we never get that implication outside of telling and not showing.

When it’s not rehashing the usual tropes of a superhero origin tale, “Ant-Man” survives with the premise, humor and well-staged action scenes. Giving that Scott can be the size of a bug, it opens the door to many creative spectacles like trying to survive a three-story building drop within the building and a surprisingly creative fight on a kid’s toy train set. If this movie wasn’t made today, it would be hard to see such convincing special effects and not to mention some CGI ants that look cute while retaining their realistic body structure.

The main theme(s) deals with redemption as Scott hopes to rekindle with his young daughter while even Hank has to deal with his (played by Evangeline Lilly). Their relationship feels cold and distant compared to Scott’s who only wants to be a hero to his little girl. When the action and effects take a break, we do get some good character depth that only makes us wish there was more there as Hank reveals the fear of losing his child as much as Scott does yet differently.

While it doesn’t raise the bar or prove to be perfect like last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, “Ant-Man” does provide a lot of fun and gives us characters that are unique to watch. Unfortunately, a strong story is sadly missed here as the focus is primary on a lot of tongue-in cheek dialogue that borderlines at a near self-spoof. “Ant-Man” has not had a smooth pre-production history as Edgar Wright was to helm this entry but left due to creative differences. In a way, I do wonder how much of Wright’s material made it to the final cut considering his co-writing credit and there are times when the comedy feels self-aware like in Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz. One example is when Scott breaks into a home and notices the heavy amount of security ranging form a fingerprint scanner to the basement to a safe made of the same metal used to craft the Titanic. Its ridiculous on paper but somehow feels plausible in execution.

The better way to describe this movie is a mix between The Rocketeer and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as the rocket jet-pack is substituted for a suit and we explore more than just someone’s backyard from time to time. I was honestly surprised by the amount of fun and effort but it falls short when compared to Iron Man or Captain America. Its obviously not trying to raise the bar and just be an entry for the sake of enjoyment. And seeing how many times they play around with the shrinking and use the microscopic words to great potential, I found myself feeling satisfied with this fun-sized flick. Its very rare we get a film to show the wonders of inside an ant hill while also the danger of a bathtub from a bug’s point of view. While it doesn’t do much new and uses the same cliched notes and beats from the casual origin story, the fun factor is so high here that I can’t help but recommend it.

“Ultron” worthy sequel

The Avengers are back! Truly a good kick to the summer

The Avengers are back! Truly a good kick to the summer

When “The Avengers” came out, there was a tidal wave of excitement in 2012. Not only was it a crossover with our favorite characters but opened a new door for superhero movies in general. It proved you can have a good story with straight up fun action. Well, I didn’t think it could be topped but it was…by “Guardians of the Galaxy.” Call it personal taste, but what “Guardians” did was perfect the “raised bar” further with such a premise that sounded strange on idea but turned to be something more like “Futurama” where the focus is on the characters and how they relate. It felt like there wasn’t a way Marvel Studios could top itself again and sadly “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is proof.

Now, don’t mistake this as a negative review. “Ultron” is a good sequel and a great follow-up to one of the best superhero blockbusters. But part of me feels there’s only so many times you can surprise your viewers, let alone amaze them. I’m not saying Marvel is bad seeing they are keeping a good track record but at this point, one must be cautious before the next big “tent pole”. The hype for “Ultron” and marketing has been making it out to be this next big “Godfather II” sequel in my opinion and going in viewers must know that what they will get is not a masterpiece. But rather something that really kicks off the summer movie binge.

The Avengers return with everyone at the helm when a new threat comes into view and this time its man made. Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) crafts a new defense program called Ultron that is basically a living and breathing computer program set to save the world. And it just so happens that Loki’s staff provides some extra ingredient in bringing his creation to life. At first it starts off as an abstract form but later takes the body of a robot with the voice of James Spader who believes the only way to save the world is to destroy all of humanity. With the threat of extinction at hand, the gang tries to remain one step ahead of the technologically advanced villain while also try and work as a better team.

What made the first Avengers work in the first place was the concept itself. A group of superheros getting together, trying to work off each other and fight together. This was something really new at the time and I feel “Ultron” tries to place it in a fresh direction while it has some familiarity. The biggest risk is that secret service S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t there to help them out so now everyone has to work together despite having some problems with one another. Iron Man keeps butting heads with Captain America (Chris Evans) over the right way to handle government creations (seeing Cap was made to protect through a serum) while Thor is stuck between his way of handling things and the “human way.” Even Bruce Banner tries to keep his Hulk under control while dealing with a romance between him and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) that ends in a bittersweet moment that’s very heartbreaking.

James Spader is the menacing Ultron who plans to protect the human race by destroying it....odd

James Spader is the menacing Ultron who plans to protect the human race by destroying it….odd

Ultron himself is an interesting character pushing the boundaries for what is good for the human race even if it means killing it. Sure this is something that has been done before yet the characteristic and motivation is what keeps it fresh. Ultron plans to fabricate a being close to his own thought and when it does form, there’s more than just a unique good vs. evil ploy but even the question of how much technology can evolve to the point a living being can be human yet android. James Spader dons a personality that gives the metal menace a fun yet diabolical personality as he tends to channel the sarcastic quirk of Tony Stark as almost a clone of the playboy scientist.

With everything that works in the movie, are there things that go against it? For starters, its a sequel and at this point, viewers expect a retread or something fresh. Director Josh Whedon returns going in a direction that is a bit edgier than the first film but at the same time carries on elements that made the first film work. They don’t feel like a complete clone of the first but more take things in a different aspect. The group fights but this time its over the ethical “saving the world” choice. There are big action scenes as one city gets torn up after another but feel more slick and up the ante. A notable highlight is a fight between Iron Man and Bruce as the Hulk with an African city in risk being demolished. There are moments which make me wonder if the first is trumped seeing a few things are fixed like the character of Hawkeye getting more screen time and development. But there’s some bits of territory that almost feel familiar like the big climax where a city is in danger as the Avengers try to save every civilian they can. There are some additions that add on the risk factor while keeping it entertaining but there’s only so many times you rehash certain beats like stalling the villain or Iron Man trying to stop some form of ticking bomb.

The heart of “Age of Ultron” is really the story which feels like a superhero version of the Frankenstein mythos. Creator makes a near human replica out of old artifacts (in this case an old computer program and Loki’s staff), creator rejects creation, creation sees the world and seeks after another like him and revenge against creator and so forth. Even the second half feels a little “Bride of Frankenstein” in spots while again giving a modern yet fresh take. This is the glue that held the whole movie together in the midst of its explosions and reheated yet well-done cliches for me. It shows you can take old elements and give them new life to something entertaining while also smart when it needs to be. As a sequel and follow-up to the first film, “Ultron” works fine enough to give a high recommendation but as the next “bar raising” movie is something to be debated.