Spider-Man: Homecoming – Engaging characters make up for ho-hum action

The Marvel-Sony partnership prompted by the critical and commercial failure of 2014’s Andrew Garfield starrer The Amazing Spider-Man 2, seems to be paying off. Early indications are that Spider-Man: Homecoming is going to pull in box-office cash in the same range that Sam Raimi’s original trilogy scooped up from 2002 to 2007. Reaction from critics and audiences likewise has been positive.

What’s made the difference?

Firstly, Spider-Man is now integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) via his introductory appearance in Captain America: Civil War last year. Audiences are have been deeply involved with the characters in the MCU for some years now. Naturally, any new character introduced into an MCU film benefits from that halo effect. And that’s exactly what was set up in Civil War; we were introduced to a teenage Spider-Man played by Tom Holland and another new character Prince T’Challa of Wakanda (aka the Black Panther), both being set up for their respective solo films. And so here we are with Homecoming successfully picking up speed in the slipstream of Civil War and Black Panther scheduled to follow suit next February. Audiences know that whenever they go to watch an MCU film featuring any one character/ team, they will get some bonus Marvel character appearances as well; in the case of Homecoming, the guest stars are Iron Man, his security chief Happy Hogan (played by director of the first two Iron Man films, Jon Favreau), Pepper Potts and Captain America appearing in some public service videos.

Second, this time around audiences don’t have to endure an entire film repeating the well-known origin story of Spider-Man bitten by a radioactive spider. Instead, we get to see the character already set up with his powers and his suit. The fun part is seeing how his mundane teenage world contrasts with the jet-setting lifestyles of the Avengers, who he looks up to and so desperately wants to be a part of.

Third, the casting this time really works:-

EVERYBODY likes (loves!) Marisa Tomei as Aunt May.

Michael Keaton’s Adrian Toomes (aka the Vulture) is the best villain in the MCU (traditionally a weak area) and the 2nd best Spidey villain after Alfred Molina’s Doc Octopus from 2004’s Spider-Man 2. While not as tragic a figure as Doc Ock, Toomes’ motivation to move into a life of crime is something one can sort of empathize with.

Peter Parker’s high school gang are all interesting characters and oh-so-ethnically-diverse; his best buddy Ned is played by Jacob Batalon, who is of Filipino origin; class nerd Michelle is played by the multi-ethnic Zendaya; love interest Liz is played by African-American Laura Harrier and class smart-ass Flash who is blond and muscled in the comics is now played by Tony Revolori, who is of Guatemalan descent.

In fact, the only character I didn’t really care too much about is Peter Parker himself. Not because Tom’s a bad actor, but perhaps because the 21-year-old actor is too good at acting as a whiny 15-year-old motor-mouth who wants everything…at one point in the film, I really couldn’t handle that non-stop high pitched voice of his as he provided a running commentary during an action sequence!

Speaking of action sequences, that was the key weak link in the film for me. While I was engaged with all the characters, the action and the fights didn’t hold my attention at all. I think it’s because the outcome is so predictable. C’mon! it’s a PG-13 film. Of course, no one important is going to die or get maimed. This isn’t Game of Thrones, right? Well, to be fair to the studio, they did try that route in 2014’s The Amazing Spider-Man 2 with Mary Jane Watson; I don’t think that movie failed because of that plot point at the end, but it’s understandable that the producers didn’t want anything really nasty to happen to any characters in this all-important reboot. And so, we end up with 3 action set-pieces which are all big-scale and spectacular, but not really gripping.

What was fun about the action scenes was all the showcasing of all the tech that Tony Stark had built into Peter Parker’s suit. The suit AI (F.R.I.D.A.Y.), a female version of J.A.R.V.I.S. seemed a bit too good to be true, even more intelligent that J.A.R.V.I.S., it seemed to me!

And to round off the complaints, I still dislike the mismatched fonts of the movie title.

By now, anyone who’s been to a few Marvel movies knows to wait back for mid-credits and post-credits stingers. Well, there are two in this movie. The first stinger sets up a potential villain for the sequel, a criminal named Mac Gargan who becomes the Scorpion in the comic books. The 2nd one is really cheeky joke, eliciting appreciative laughter from the audience in the theatre.

And so, we have a Sony back on track with the Spider-Man franchise, with more than a bit of help from their ‘friends’ at Marvel/ Disney. Fans can only hope that this success could fuel a similar partnership between Marvel and Fox to resurrect the Fantastic Four franchise (although Marvel boss Kevin Feige has assured reporters that the possibility is beyond remote).

We still have one MCU film to go this year – the ‘buddy road film’ Thor: Ragnarok releasing in November, featuring Thor and the Hulk forced into mortal combat in an alien coliseum.

Next year, there are no less than 6 Marvel films! Three are MCU films from Disney – Black Panther (Feb), Avengers: Infinity War (May) and Ant-Man & the Wasp (July). The other three are mutant films from Fox – X-Men: The New Mutants (Apr), Deadpool 2 (June) and X-Men: Dark Phoenix (Nov). Oh, the joy!


Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: fun characters, fun music, fun scenes

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James Gunn returns as writer-director for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 this week and from what Marvel Pictures head honcho Kevin Feige recently said, Gunn’s work on the sequel has earned him a place in the brains trust of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe); this is the core team who are responsible for building the ever-growing interconnected body of films which started with Iron Man in 2008 and now encompasses 15 films with 7 more to come by May 2019.

Gunn brought a new dimension to the MCU with the first GotG film in 2014; these characters were known only to Marvel fanboys and so, unencumbered by preconceived audience expectations, the studio was able to experiment with a different look (a brighter colour palette) and tone (a self-aware comedic sensibility, more violent, edgier language) compared to the previous Marvel films. And of course, there was the ‘Awesome Mixtape’ of 70’s tunes, a risky approach which paid dividends in spades and really brought some of the scenes alive.

In Vol. 2, Gunn builds on those successes with a bigger budget – using a fresh batch of music from the ‘Awesome Mixtape 2’, he goes for a more ambitious audio-visual experience (including a couple of intricately choreographed set-pieces) but most importantly, he continues with the character development, fleshing out some key characters, not just Peter Quill, but also Yondu, Nebula, Rocket Raccoon and introducing interesting new ones like Mantis and Ego.

Stand-out characters

Of course, all the 5 members of the GOTG team are appealing in their own way and we know that Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana as Star-Lord and Gamora respectively are effectively the romantic leads with the most screen time. But all credit to the director and to the visual effects teams for elevating the other 3 members (2 of whom are CGI) and ensuring they are more than just comic relief. Outstanding voice work by Bradley Cooper makes us forget that we are empathizing with a bunch of computer pixels arranged to look like a talking raccoon. Likewise, Dave Bautista as Drax, while mostly serving as comic relief, also provides one of the strongest emotional beats to the film in the scene where he sits on the steps of Ego’s palace with Mantis and reminisces about his daughter. And of course, Baby Groot is oh-so-cute in every single scene and has 3 significant set-pieces in the film – one is the opening title sequence, the second involves his attempts to steal a new ‘head fin’ for Yondu and the last has him trying to set off a powerful explosive device.

Beyond these 5, James Gunn manages to give sufficient space to develop the characters of both Yondu and Nebula who return with larger roles that fill out their back story.

Among the new characters, French actress Pom Klementieff makes quite an impact as the empath Mantis and rising Australian thesp Elizabeth Debicki chews up the scenery as the high priestess of the Sovereign race.

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Visuals and songs perfectly matched

Complex battle scenes fought in three-dimensional space are the order of the day in scifi blockbusters these days. Although all the different moving parts in these battles can now be pre-visualized and choreographed using 3D computer models, it still takes a degree of skill to make the scene comprehensible and entertaining. In GotG Vol. 2, director James Gunn shows off this skill in abundance, not just in terms of visual imagination, but also in the juxtaposition of those visuals against a superb collection of 70’s songs. My favourite scenes are:-

  • Battling the inter-dimensional beast/ title sequence – Mister Blue Sky by ELO: Accompanying what James Gunn describes as “the most hugely insane shot I’ve ever done” at the start of the film, the song powering the scene puts a smile on your face and gets your feet tapping.
  • Arrival at Ego’s planet – My Sweet Lord by George Harrison: This song really showcases the power of Ego (Kurt Russell) and what he has created on his lush and gloriously beautiful planet.
  • Yondu takes revenge – Come a Little Bit Closer by Jay and the Americans: Revenge is sweet, especially if it can be choreographed to music while the main characters walk through the mayhem in majestic slo-mo!
  • Battle at Ego’s planet – Wham bam shang-a-lang by Sliver: Reminiscent of the way in which Beastie Boys’ Sabotage punctuated the attack on the USS Yorktown space station in Star Trek Beyond, this little known song is the perfect choice to herald the start of climactic battle scene.
  • Ravager funeral – Father and Son by Cat Stevens: Given that the main theme of the story is father-son relationships, this funeral scene which takes place to the tune of Cat Stevens’ tear-jerker song forms the perfect coda for the film.

After the movie ends, stay back for not 1 or 2, but 5 mid-credits stingers.

I know critics are not giving this one as high ratings as the first movie, but it’s normal for critics to be disappointed and it’s so difficult to break new ground with a sequel and still give audiences the familiar elements they have come back for (yes, we know Empire Strikes Back is an exception). I’ll look forward to seeing these adorable “rogues with hearts of gold” in GotG Vol. 3 at some point of time in the future and as part of the larger Marvel ensemble in Avengers: Infinity War next summer.

Marvel brews some strange magic

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The Marvel hit factory started off by telling us stories of modern science being used to both create and overcome evil, with Iron Man in 2008 and Captain America in 2011. Our world then had to deal with alien visitors when Thor and some unwelcome Asgardians came to visit in 2011. More aliens, all unwelcome, came through a portal in the sky in The Avengers in 2012. Soon after, we were taken on an intergalactic adventure (yes, Xandar the homeworld of the Nova Corps. is in the neighboring Andromeda galaxy) in Guardians of the Galaxy in 2014. Now, producer Kevin Feige and team open a new door and take us into the mystical world of spells and astral planes with their latest product Doctor Strange.

Featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, who is superbly cast in the lead role, this is a welcome expansion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Doctor Strange’s character has been teased previously in a couple of MCU movies and the connection is made very clear early on when a shot of NYC shows the Avengers building nestling among the cluster of Manhattan skyscrapers.

This is one of Marvel’s most expensive movies, with a production cost of $ 165 million, the highest for an origin story of a newly introduced character, but of course a safe bet when you consider that this is the 14th film in the MCU. The previous 13 have collectively grossed $ 10 billion across the world and by now, Marvel fans will probably come out to watch even a reboot of the much-maligned Howard the Duck movie.

The film is mainly set in NYC, the home of brilliant but oh-so-charmingly-arrogant neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange. But the action moves from Nepal to London to Hong Kong during the course of the movie.

Given that we’ve had a profusion of fantasy and magic related movies in the past decade and a half, it’s difficult to escape the feeling that there are some familiar tropes being recycled here. For example, Strange’s semi-sentient Cloak of Levitation behaves like something out of a Harry Potter film, a cross between that crotchety sorting hat and the invisibility cloak. Likewise, the evil being Dormammu’s representation is reminiscent of Sauron’s eye in the Lord of the Rings films. Some of the reality distortion in the city fight scenes will also seem familiar to anyone who has watched Christopher Nolan’s Inception, although I have to say I was completely immersed in the experience and found myself involuntarily tilting my body in response to some of the changes in perspective.

Having said that, the whole is greater than the sum of its recycled parts and it was beautifully topped off by the Hong Kong fight sequence set-piece. It uses some of the most inventive reality-bending concepts seen on screen since The Matrix; latching on to objects moving backwards in time and using them as vehicles and weapons is a pretty neat trick!

Much has been written about the ‘whitewashing’ of a key character; The Ancient One ended up becoming this bald white woman instead of this ancient Asian man. But when actually watching the movie, I was so taken up by Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of the character that she didn’t seem out of place.

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What did dissatisfy me was the portrayal of Kamar-Taj, the hidden retreat where the Ancient One lives. It seemed too easy to find and it had too many trainees going through standard kung fu moves to fit the description of an exclusive hideout of powerful sorcerers. Likewise, the ease with which Stephen Strange picks up his sorcery skills didn’t sit right with me. It seemed like he had been at Kamal-Taj for just a few weeks. In comparison, Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins goes through a seemingly more arduous and long drawn training regimen in Ra’s al Ghul’s Himalayan hideout and therefore his eventual transformation to Batman is far more believable.

When the Doctor Strange project was greenlit by Marvel Studios and the casting for the title character was on, I was secretly praying that Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen would be chosen for the role. I don’t know why this particular actor came to mind, but his strong facial features and ability to play stoic characters, seemed like the perfect fit for the confident/ arrogant Stephen Strange. Even though he didn’t get that part, I was thrilled at the irony and coincidence of him getting picked the chief villain Kaecilius. But of course, in blockbuster movie bad guy roles like this, there is little opportunity for actors like Mikkelsen to show their range, beyond the usual bombastic bad guy proclamations. As with all Marvel films, humour is used very effectively as a counterpoint to the action and the tension; pretty much all the characters, including even Kaecilius get at least one humourous line at they all work.

Marvel movies aren’t known for great music soundtracks, nothing like the iconic stuff that John Williams created in the 1970s for Star Wars and Superman. I do like Alan Silvestri’s OST for The Avengers and I have to say, Oscar winner and long-time Disney Pixar composer Michael Giacchino has done some good work here for Doctor Strange. While most of it is generic, the Master of the Mystic end credits sounds like it should be THE Doctor Strange theme and has this wonderful throwback feel like something from those 1970s British scifi TV shows, Doctor Who or Sapphire and Steel.

Speaking of which, as usual, do stay through to watch the mid- and end-credits. You’ll know which MCU movie Doctor Strange will have a guest appearance in next and you’ll also know who will be his next adversary.

Studios race to build cinematic universes

We’re all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe which so far has given rise to several highly successful and mostly well-regarded movies, not just from Marvel’s parent company Disney but also from other studios like Fox and Sony which own the franchise rights for the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man respectively.

The interconnectedness of their titles allows Marvel to launch movies based on new and sometimes little-known characters with the knowledge that they can reduce the financial risk by introducing the character in a related (and already successful) movie series. Some members of the Avengers like Hawkeye and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man films and Black Panther was recently introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics (which is owned by Warner Bros.), actually has the more iconic superheroes by far and has successfully brought both Superman and Batman to the big screen, but had previously been unable to use either film series to launch other characters from their staple. They finally put a roadmap together a few years ago to build a series of films around the Justice League (DC’s version of the Avengers). This started off with Man of Steel in 2013 and followed up with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder and both somewhat disappointing. In the past few months, a senior task force has been assembled to sort out scripting and creative issues. Today’s release of the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League (both due in 2017) indicate that they may have got their act together. As a bonus, Suicide Squad, an R-rated anti-hero movie which was once considered a ‘side-show’ in the DC Cinematic Universe is now among the most anticipated releases of the year and may fuel public interest in the movies to come, possibly even forcing Warner Bros. to include Suicide Squad characters in the other films.

So it’s clear that studios are now looking not just to create franchises but cinematic universes. As per the Marvel formula, a universe can be created by starting with a series featuring one character (e.g. Iron Man) and then by launching new series featuring other lead characters, who were introduced in the original series. Another way to milk an established franchise is by creating spin-off films starring supporting characters or by going backwards or forwards in time within the franchise timeline to tell the story of an earlier or later generation of characters.

The latter approach is exactly what Warner Bros. is trying with the forthcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the first in a new trilogy set nearly a hundred years before the events of the Harry Potter films. It narrates the adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander whose book on magical beasts was one of the required school textbooks at Hogwarts. Talk about inventive thinking! I’m sure the folks at Warner Bros. must be looking through all the Harry Potter stories to figure out how many other characters or references can be spun off to further expand the Potter Cinematic Universe.

Disney is employing a combination of both strategies to rejuvenate and extend the 40-year-old Star Wars franchise. Faced with the reality that the original cast are ageing, they introduced a new generation of  characters in last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to whom the torch is passed to continue the good fight against the evil empire. But that’s not all. Disney is also doing a ‘Newt Scamander’ by creating a series of spin-off ‘anthology’ films, which expand on characters and situations from the original trilogy. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story releasing at the end of this year. This will be followed two years later by an origin story for Han Solo.

A new universe in the making that I am very excited about is the one coming from Universal Studios. This one will bring together the classic horror monsters which brought the studio great success from the 1930s to the early ’50s. If all goes according to plan, we will get to see Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Gill-man (from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Dr. Jekyll all occupy the same cinematic space over the next few years. The first movie in the series was a bit of a misfire – Dracula Untold from 2014. Presumably the studio already knew they had a dud on their hands and therefore refrained from publicly marketing this film as part of a future franchise. Instead, they will launch the franchise with a far surer bet – a new remake of The Mummy set in modern times, starring Tom Cruise scheduled for release in 2017. Russell Crowe will appear in the movie as Dr. Jekyll, perhaps testing waters for a stand-alone Jekyll & Hyde feature. Earlier this year, it was announced that Johnny Depp would star in The Invisible Man for a 2018 release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. with production partner Legendary Pictures is attempting to create a universe which brings together King Kong and Godzilla. The 2014 remake of Godzilla is being treated as the first film in the ‘giant super-species cinematic universe’ to be followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla 2 in 2018.The first trailer for the former was released yesterday and showcases the powerhouse cast of Tom Hiddleston, this year’s Oscar winner Brie Larson and veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. As can be expected, the trailer gives only brief and incomplete glimpses of King Kong. The Godzilla reboot cast the giant reptile as mankind’s savior against two other monsters. Fanboys refer to these monsters by their Japanese appellation kaiju, but in the film they are referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Obviously, we will see more MUTOs in Godzilla 2 in 2019, possibly from original rights holder Toho’s collection of baddies such as King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And so, when Godzilla and Kong meet on-screen in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong, one can expect city-levelling mayhem that would put even Zack Snyder’s DC films to shame. An intriguing possibility is that Legendary Pictures may find a way to fuse this universe with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim series which it also produces. This seems highly unlikely though it would be the ultimate kaiju wet dream!

For fans of epic/ big effects films, the next few years promises to be very exciting with superheroes, monsters, aliens and giant creatures invading our theaters. Just make sure you can keep track of how they are all related to each other!

Captain America: Civil War – The Avengers sequel that’s better than the Avengers sequel

And so, the Captain America trilogy has come to an end. It began nearly five years ago with The First Avenger, a movie characterized by its simplicity and earnestness, reflecting the spirit of the times. During World War II, when your country asked you to fight, you fought; and it was easy to tell your allies from your enemies. The 2014 sequel The Winter Soldier was set 70 years later in the present day, but drew its inspiration from the conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s, a time when spies and double agents made it difficult to distinguish between friend and foe. The sibling duo of Joe and Anthony Russo are back again in the directors’ chair for the third and seemingly final entry in the series, Civil War. This time around, they seem even more at ease in managing what has become a hugely complex storytelling effort. Not only does Civil War continue with the second movie’s theme of “you don’t know who your allies are”, it goes one step further and turns friends into enemies.

The trailers made it clear that Civil War features pretty much all the characters from The Avengers; Age of Ultron and has frequently been referred to as ‘Avengers 2.5‘; in fact, the Russos will be directing the next two films in the Avengers series, so Civil War is indeed a bridge, both story-wise and thematically, between Age of Ultron and 2018’s Infinity War Part 1.

The only complaint I had after watching the movie yesterday (and this has been echoed in multiple reviews) is the absence of a worthy villain to challenge Earth’s Mightiest Heroes. To think that over the course of the trilogy, we have gone from Hugo Weaving’s menacing Red Skull to Robert Redford’s duplicitous S.H.I.E.L.D. leader Alexander Pierce to Daniel Bruhl’s rather bland Colonel Zemo…that’s somewhat disappointing.

The two new characters – Black Panther and Spider-Man – do add some freshness to the growing ensemble of heroes. Many critics have praised Chadwick Boseman’s performance as Prince T’Challa/ Black Panther and so I was expecting something very special. I came away a bit disappointed with Boseman’s rather stiff rendering of the Wakandan prince. What did work was the wonderful chemistry between him and his father, which is a credit to South African acting veteran John Kani, who plays King T’Chaka. Spider-Man, on the other hand is an unqualified hit and Tom Holland seems a perfect embodiment of the wise-cracking teenage superhero that we all love. I was least expecting his entry into the plot at the point that it happened and there was a collective gasp of joyful surprise from the audience when we all realized whose apartment we were in.

While all the reviews have spoken glowingly about the set-piece fight sequence at the airport in Germany, I thought the opening encounter in Lagos was also very well done, with the camera work particularly effective at bringing the audience into the midst of the hand-to-hand combat in a busy market place. It’s reminiscent of the shaky cam/ quick cut style of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne movies, but far easier to watch. The Russo brothers describe themselves as ‘guerilla filmmakers’ and you understand why.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing very distinctive as far as the theme music is concerned. Henry Jackman is the composer and I loved what he had done with X-Men: First Class in 2011 (particularly Magneto’s Theme). But all we get here is a generic, bombastic score with lots of strings and horns. The best music in the extended Avengers/ Captain America film series so far is still Alan Silvestri’s theme from The Avengers.

Here are my top moments from the movie:-

  • Black Widow’s stylish fighting jacket – Scarlett Johansson continues to be the style icon for the Marvel movies, sporting a tan cotton jacket during the opening fight scene in Lagos. The jacket is already a hot seller on many online stores.

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  • Scott Lang shows he can go both ways – The airport fight sequence is the showpiece of the movie. It’s where the growing schism between the two factions of the Avengers becomes all-out war. A last minute reinforcement for Captain America’s side is Scott Lang, aka Ant-Man. But there’s a big surprise in store as Lang shows that there’s more than one way to use those Pym particles.
  • Goodbye Peggy Carter – This was a really poignant moment for me. I’m sure Rogers-Carter doesn’t have the same ring to it as Romeo-Juliet, but for me, their unfulfilled romance has been one of the great tragic on-screen love stories of recent times, perhaps accentuated by actress Hayley Atwell’s strong performance in the Agent Carter TV series.
  • Cap keeps the Carter family connection strong – Steve Rogers moves right on, building a nice relationship with Peggy’s niece Sharon, although I do find it very difficult to accept the vapid Emily VanCamp as a replacement for the feisty Hayley Atwell.
  • We get to see the Raft – The prison for super-criminals makes an appearance.
  • Audi product placement – Audi continues their association with Tony Stark and the Avengers. Tony Stark is seen driving the super cool R8 V10 plus Coupé. The new SQ7 features prominently in a tunnel chase sequence involving Bucky, Cap and the Black Panther (check out Audi’s tie-in ad below).
  • Aunt May is really attractive – What a brilliant casting idea to get Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. Even Tony Stark seemed interested.
  • CGI is getting better at making actors look young – A low profile company called Lola VFX has been creating younger versions of actors on-screen for a few years. They ‘de-aged’ Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan for a flashback scene in X-Men: The Last Stand. In last year’s Ant-Man, a young Michael Douglas appeared in the opening scene. In both those films, they were able to take 20 years off the faces of actors in their late 60s/ early 70s. In Civil War, there’s a scene featuring a very young Robert Downey Jr., who appears to be in his late teens or early twenties; a significantly tougher task and a sign of how much the technology has improved. This is a sign of things to come in the sub-specialization now known as ‘visual cosmetics’.
  • Closing titles – The closing title sequence uses abstract shadows to describe the character played by each actor. A nice touch to have ’13’ come up against Emily VanCamp’s name, as Sharon Carter is called Agent 13 in the comic books.

And so, Marvel has yet another bona fide hit on their hands. The Disney machine already has two big hits this year with Zootopia and The Jungle Book. Look for Civil War to zoom up the charts and potentially overtake the current 2016 box office champion Deadpool in the coming weeks.

Fantastic Four – good potential ruined by in-fighting and bad press

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Fox’s much maligned Fantastic Four reboot turned out to be better than expected when I watched it earlier this week. It had received horrible reviews (Metacritic score of only 27) and has made less at the US box office in 42 days of release than the first Fantastic Four made in its opening weekend in 2005! Even worse, its release was preceded by rumors of in-fighting between young director Josh Trank and Fox studio execs, culminating in Trank dissing his own movie on social media just before the release.

It is believed that Trank turned in a dark, character-driven film, while the studio was looking for a special effects summer blockbuster, which would kick-start a new franchise. Why this was not sorted out at the script and design stage is anyone’s guess. The studio then stepped in and reshot the 3rd act to introduce some action spectacle into the film. The last time a studio reshot a 3rd act, it was for World War Z; Paramount replaced a conventional action climax with a tense, creepy, claustrophobic ‘heist-type’ sequence – it transformed the film and they had a blockbuster on their hands. Pity Fox went the other way.

I had already decided to hate the film because of the casting. I couldn’t accept that the forty-something scientist Dr. Reed Richards was being played by 28-year-old baby-faced Miles Teller who had been playing teenagers and young adults for the past two years. I couldn’t understand why the brother-sister duo of Johnny and Sue Storm were now not biologically related, with Johnny Storm being played by African-American actor Michael B. Jordan. Both Teller and Jordan are immensely talented actors, but why bring a beloved decades-old established property to the big screen and then change everything that is familiar and beloved about it?

When I started watching the film, the opening act only served to confirm my misgivings. It is very difficult to believe that a kid (young Reed Richards), no matter how brilliant, can build a prototype teleporter in his garage, with materials scrounged from a junk yard. This opening act was cute in a Steven Spielberg coming-of-age movie type of way, but just didn’t feel technologically plausible. And real-world plausibility has always been the bedrock of the hugely successful Marvel Cinematic Universe.

In any case, at the end of the first act, a teenage Richards is ‘discovered’ at a high school science fair by Professor Franklin Storm and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and invited to join the secretive government-funded Baxter Foundation for young scientific prodigies. Professor Storm is supervising is a teleportation project and he realizes that Richards has figured out the missing link in the technology to make it work. Prof. Storm convinces the brilliant but brooding originator of the project, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbel), to rejoin the team now that they are on the path to success.

We now enter the 2nd act of the film and this is where I feel everything clicks into place, playing out like a realistic science fiction thriller. The first unmanned test of the teleporter is successful as it beams back images from a world in another dimension, named ‘Planet Zero’. The young team’s celebrations turn to disappointment when they hear that the government will run the manned mission with trained NASA astronauts (and rightly so!).

In short order, the youngsters have defied orders and have launched themselves on an unauthorized teleportation trip to Planet Zero, which needless to say ends with unexpected consequences. In the entire 106 minute runtime of the movie, these are the moments that filled me with real dread and terror. For these people to return to consciousness and find themselves strapped down in a dark room, to discover what has happened to their bodies, the sense of confusion, fear and helplessness – all of it comes through the sounds and images on the screen. None more so than poor Ben Grimm; dragged along at the last minute by his childhood friend Reed Richards on this wild ride, he wakes up unable to understand what has happened to him. His pitiful and unending cries for help wake up Richards in the next room and he sees his own elongated limbs strapped down under restraints; he realizes he can stretch his way out his bonds and then drags himself through the air-conditioner grating to the source of Ben’s cries; all of this experienced by the viewer in real-time. The dark corridors and containment facilities really add to the sense of Poe-esque horror.

Now, we enter the 3rd act and this is where it kind of falls apart. The youngsters are at the mercy of the government, who want to use them as military assets, while offering them the carrot of continued funding and research to reverse their ‘maladies’. Ben Grimm and Johnny Storm agree willingly and Sue Storm less so; Reed escapes and is in hiding. But because no superhero film is complete without a showdown of heroes vs. arch villain, the script conspires to create a battle between a transformed and deranged Victor von Doom and the Fantastic Four on Planet Zero. Von Doom has created something similar to the World Engine from Man of Steel, which threatens to destroy Earth. The Four have to stop him. Frankly, I couldn’t be bothered with the generic CGI action in the last 15 minutes and quickly fast-forwarded my VLC player.

At the end, I was left wondering what the movie would have looked like had Josh Trank had been allowed to bring his vision to the screen, unaltered. I have read stories of his strange behavior on-set and no doubt that a more socially skilled director might have convinced the powers-that-be to believe in him. After the campy versions produced by Fox in 2005, I couldn’t have imagined that someone could tell the same story so differently. But at the end of the day, the movie had a split personality and it seemed to come from two different directors. The airbrushed posters were another travesty and completely out of sync with the tone of the movie.

I imagine that the chances of a sequel are virtually nil and I am not sure where the studio will go from here, because in order to retain the rights to the characters, they have to make another movie by 2017, I think. That is unlikely. I don’t think another reboot will work, as paying audiences may not have the patience to watch a third origin story for the quartet. The other option is to go the Sony/ Spider-Man route and collaborate with Marvel to co-produce the next movie and build in a cross-over appearance with other Marvel movies; that would require Fox to swallow some humble pie, which doesn’t go down very well in Hollywood, as we know.

Safe to say that Trank will be persona-non-grata in Hollywood for a while; he has already lost his directing gig on a future Star Wars movie with Disney (the owner of Marvel). All one is left thinking at the end of the movie is of what might have been.

On-screen chemistry helps Ant-Man punch above its weight

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The seeds of success for Marvel’s movies were sown way back in 2008 with Jon Favreau’s Iron Man. What differentiated this film from other successful superhero flicks of the past decade was the light-hearted banter and repartee between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts, which then became the framework for all subsequent films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

This undefinable, magical thing called ‘chemistry’ sits at the heart of Marvel’s latest cinematic production Ant-Man. While sub-atomic chemistry in the form of ‘Pym Particles’ is the source of Ant-Man’s shrinking power, it’s the on-screen chemistry that powers this film and makes it a candidate for repeat viewing. There are so many emotional bonds interconnected in a complex tug-of-war here – veteran scientist Dr. Henry Pym trying to draw his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne away from his megalomaniac former protégé Darren Cross; ex-con Scott Lang trying to go straight while his well-meaning buddies Luis, Kurt & Dave entice him into another heist job; Lang’s young daughter trying to adjust to her mother’s new married life with upright cop Paxton, while pining for her absent dad; Lang reluctantly being tutored by Dr. Pym under the critical eye of Hope; Dr. Pym’s on-going rivalry with his ex-SHIELD colleague/ antagonist Mitchell Carson, who is now a potential business associate with Darren Cross.

With so much character interplay, the casting choices for this film were critical and the filmmakers went for some interesting choices…all of which worked! Comedian Paul Rudd (who I have never particularly cared for) was cast against type as the reluctant superhero. Acting thesp Michael Douglas who has previously played intense characters fighting real world adversaries, was cast as Dr. Henry Pym, the creator of the Pym Particles, the original Ant-Man and now a reclusive retired billionaire. Evangeline Lilly who was very convincing as the elf Tauriel in The Hobbit movies is perfectly cast as Hope Van Dyne; comic fans will note that her on-screen appearance (especially the hair) is a spitting image of the character’s mother Janet Van Dyne, aka The Wasp. Corey Stoll who made a big impact in House of Cards S1 and is the lead in The Strain plays the bad guy Darren Cross.

But besides these lead roles, the supporting cast has really lifted the movie and deserves special mention:-

Michael Peña previously played typical Latino supporting roles in ensemble action films like Fury and Battle: Los Angeles, with occasional meaty roles as co-lead (End of Watch and World Trade Center) or lead (Cesar Chavez) in serious dramatic fare. In Ant-Man, he shows off his funny side as Luis, Scott Lang’s former cellmate who tries to get Lang back on his feet when he gets out of jail. Peña is the comedic lynchpin in the film, stealing every scene he’s in, particularly a couple of brilliant exposition dialogues (referred to as ‘tip montages’) written by uncredited writers Gabriel Ferrari and Andrew Barrer that will surely end up on YouTube soon. I also loved the clever touch of him whistling “It’s a small world after all” at the start of the climactic heist scene.

The hard-working Bobby Cannavale plays Paxton, a cop who is married to Scott Lang’s ex-wife. Cannavale rose to prominence on TV (Boardwalk Empire, Nurse Jackie) and then broke out onto the big screen playing the Marlon Brando role in Blue Jasmine, Woody Allen’s reimagining of A Streetcar Named Desire. Earlier this summer, he was very good as Al Pacino’s estranged son in the highly watchable Danny Collins. In Ant-Man, Cannavale’s Paxton is someone who genuinely wants the best for his new family, which means having to cut some slack for his wife’s ex-con ex-husband, while staying true to his job as a cop. He is the straight foil to all the other over-the-top stuff going on in the movie.

Young Abby Ryder Fortson plays Scott Lang’s daughter Cassie with a lot of gumption and charm. I suspect we will see her in a lot of cute and sassy child roles in the years to come.

Another aspect of the movie that worked for me was the music. Christophe Beck (the guy who created the theme for Buffy the Vampire Slayer) delivers the best superhero movie soundtrack since Henry Jackman’s work in X-Men: First Class. It has an old world spy movie feel to it, but also elements of playfulness with the horns, big band and latin sounds. The closing piece Tales to Astonish reminds me of Dick Dale’s Misirlou. Lots of percussion; definitely worth listening to on its own.

Scriptwriters Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish would have been fully justified in telling a conventional origin story about Dr. Henry Pym’s discovery of the rare sub-atomic Pym Particles that allow him to shrink in size and communicate with insects. That’s how Marvel introduced Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. But over time, audiences have become fatigued with origin stories which have been accused of just being a set-up for a sequel. Rather than ‘waste’ an entire movie on it, Ant-Man’s origins are explained through dialogue referring to Dr. Pym’s undercover exploits way back in the ’80s (yes, that’s what ‘the past’ is for this generation; for me, it would be the ‘50s and ‘60s) and there is also a short but thrilling flashback segment which shows the original Ant-Man and his partner The Wasp in action trying to dismantle a rogue ICBM.

So, instead of a padded up origin story, Ant-Man has been set up as a heist movie…and in the case of Scott Lang’s character, it also plays out as an ‘underdog-beats-the-odds’ movie. Especially in the latter context, the vibe between Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd reminded me at times of Burgess Meredith and Sylvester Stallone in Rocky or Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio in The Karate Kid.

Going forward, Paul Rudd will reprise the character in next year’s Captain America: Civil War and I guess he will show up in The Avengers sequels scheduled for 2018 and 2019. Currently, there is no Ant-Man sequel scheduled, so I’m not sure if we will ever get a chance to see this entire ensemble of actors together again, which would be a great pity. I hope the brains trust at Marvel is thinking about bringing this magical chemistry back to the screen again soon!