Aisle of the Damned: 06/16/17- Atomic Batteries to Power

Who's the monster?

We’re back for more punishment from Tom Cruise’s to-do list. Actually, we talk 2017’s new version of The Mummy after a discussion of the Aubrey Plaza vehicle The To Do List sparks a little conversation over 90’s nostalgia.

Before we talk about the Dark Universe though, we talk about the legacy of the great Adam West of Batman: The Movie and so much more.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Nelson Riddle- To the Batmobile
Nelson Riddle- Hi-Diddle Riddle
Link Wray and his Ray Men- Run Chicken Run

Aisle of the Damned: 11/21/16- Strange(r) Things

Don't talk to strangers

Sorry for the lateness. You know how it is when turkey is involved. But here’s one Thanksgiving leftover you won’t want to leave in the fridge.

Kent and Bryan discuss the films Arrival and Doctor Strange, two pieces of pulp that seem to be trying harder than usual to engage your brain. We also say goodbye to Robert Vaughn and discuss our DC-flavored recommendations of the week, both of which are revivals of a TV series in one way or another.

All this and less in Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Echo and the Bunnymen- People are Strange

Aisle of the Damned: 9/1/16- Kent Hasn’t Seen Empire Records

Have you seen my wiener?

After his admission that he had not seen Empire Records last week, Kent lost several of his friends. But at least we’ve got a couple of animated films to review! Laika Studios (Coraline, Paranorman) has a new stop-motion flick called Kubo and the Two Strings. Meanwhile, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (This is the End, The Interview) decide to call hot dogs ‘sausages’ so they can name their movie Sausage Party, even though nobody actually does that. Are you ready for some cartoons? All that, plus some upcoming movie discussion about Spider-Man: Homecoming and Justice League Dark. Oh, and our recommendations. And we gripe about the ratings system again.

All this and less in Aisle of the Damned!

Music:
The Aquabats- Stuck in a Movie
Soul Heirs- Hot Links

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Sad Batman is Sad

I’ve been a defender of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel. Despite the issues I have with it (the terrible color correction, the insane death of Jonathan Kent, etc.), I thought it made the best of some source material that I always found questionable, aka forcing a Xerox of Batman’s spirit quest around the world into his mythology. I guess I was so relieved to finally have a Superman movie without an awful, over-the-top bumbling Clark Kent performance, a nonsense Luthor scheme, fluctuating powers that defy the movie’s internal logic, bastard kids or a thoroughly dislikable Lois Lane that I could overlook the flaws. After all, despite the bleakness, there’s promise in the film. Clark has finished a costly first battle and is in a position to use that sacrifice to learn and be the hero he should be. He can take his actions from Man of Steel and build on them, vowing to never take another life. Though unlike all the people who apparently have forgotten both the comics and the ending of their beloved Superman II, I had no problem with Clark killing Zod, seeing as how he’s the one character Superman has ever knowingly offed.

The question was, would the sequel build on that promise, or would it double down on the unique problems this take brought to the franchise? All of the marketing material seemed to indicate this would not so much be a Superman sequel as either a proto-Justice League movie or a jumping off point to a Frank Miller Batman franchise, none of which sounded particularly appealing. Unfortunately, this is largely correct. Superman seems like an also-ran in his own film for the most part.

After a strangely gripping prologue that gives a street level view of the devastation wrought by the battle between Clark and Zod in Man of Steel, the film settles in for an hour or so, spending a lot of time introducing us to this version of Batman, who follows the natural through line from Burton to Nolan to Snyder, finally adopting a fully-functional Dark Knight Returns-style Batman who is equal parts psychotic and broken. An impotent man who takes out his fury by torturing criminals and not especially caring if people die in his pursuit of self-serving justice. It’s certainly not my favorite style of Batman (I skew much farther towards the Denny O’Neil-style well-rounded version) but much as certain fanboys may deny it, this version of Batman is what many of them have been angling for.  Be careful what you wish for.

Meanwhile, we see Superman performing many acts of heroism, saving people around the world from disasters, intercut with footage of a world who doesn’t know how to react to him or trust him. It’s not so much a bad portrayal of Kal-El, but it certainly does create a morose environment surrounding him. After much sturm and drang, this overall paranoia leads to the confrontation of the title. To reveal much more would be to give away the mechanics of the plot, but it is fair to point out the much touted appearances by other Justice League members don’t just feel distracting, but actually lower the excitement over Warners’ plans for their characters.

The good news is that while the film is full of bad ideas, the ideas are filmed and acted competently. The bad news is that competence doesn’t fix bad ideas, it simply makes them go down easier. Make no mistake; there are some things to enjoy in the film which make it still worth seeing. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman does great things with her limited screentime. Gadot herself, apart from seeming to have trouble getting her Israeli accent around some of the overinflated dialogue, is a wonderful physical actress. Jeremy Irons’ Alfred manages to be an absolutely necessary source of humor in an otherwise dour affair. The majority of the acting is fine, even Ben Affleck’s, though he comes up short selling Batman’s character arc and revelation moment. The major exception is Jessie Eisenberg who seems to be edited in from a completely different film. While I’ve never been a fan of the way Luthor has been used in the Superman films, it’s quite a shock to go from the intelligent menace of Kevin Spacey’s portrayal to Eisenberg’s collection of tics and vocal contortions masquerading as a performance. He plays Lex Luthor as some kind of bizarre Joker variation, his motivation either making him pathetic or a puppet. Sometimes he is effectively creepy, but mostly he comes off as annoying.

The plot grabs famous storylines from the two characters at random like Scrabble tiles from a bag. In the end, what we have is a mess. A mess that is interesting, but overly long and needlessly complicated. It has a fourth act tacked on because there was never a scenario where the Superman/Batman fight could be dramatically satisfying as a conclusion.

Worse, in their misguided race to force a rivalry with Marvel Studios, Warner Bros. attempts to cram huge amounts of set-up into the film and none of that set-up feels earned. Watching it feels like we missed a few movies that were released between Man of Steel and now. Many audience members may even be completely lost as to what a lot of what is going on. When your entire movie is based on laying a foundation for future installments, that should be rather disconcerting. As of this moment, I’m not particularly looking forward to Justice League. Or Suicide Squad with its copy and paste characters who look like they stepped out of a 90s pitch meeting when “edgy” was still a buzzword. Wonder Woman and the Lego Batman Movie are they only DC film projects which continue to pique my interest. As I am a person who was a big DC fan until fairly recently, that kind of reaction should have Warner Bros. concerned. Somehow, I don’t think they’ll care.

(Two and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Deadpool

Somehow, the highlight of Ryan Reynolds' career

Let’s take a moment to let this sink in: Rob Liefeld’s golden boy has a movie. Robbie has got to be the richest comic artist ever who won’t draw feet. Was getting this movie worth handing him enough of a wad to keep him hip-deep in Levis and hookers?

Yes.

While sure to be a divisive film, I spent the drive home reminiscing with my viewing companion about the best moments. I can’t recall the last time that happened. (Though to be honest the crushing solidarity of my usual trips to the movies could account for that.) For the majority of its runtime, it is a kick to the fun sack, with only some tonal issues and questionable character moments getting in the way. But it’s understandable. While there may be some of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick Ass in its recessive DNA, it’s largely a type of film that’s never been made before: a mid-level budget that all of the X-movies since the original would wipe their asses with, a fairly hard R-rating, a comedic overtone, a character who has only been around for a couple of decades, a tangential relationship to a major franchise and an anti-hero main character. We’ve seen some of these together here and there. But certainly not all at once. So to juggle this all successfully is actually pretty impressive and it doesn’t take the coward’s way out as it also plays with structure, mixing one broken up set piece with flashbacks for the majority of the runtime.

Here’s where the film falters: it’s great that the structure is fractured, but it still manages to sag in the middle as we go through the one tradition that the movie refuses to break with: the origin story.

And yet, their attempts to brighten up that part of the film isn’t deftly directed enough to present a really meaningful before and after for Deadpool himself, Wade Wilson. At least not personality-wise. Is it enough to derail the film? Not even close. But it is noticeable enough to make a dent that you won’t find in the slicker, mainstream Marvel factory. Should we be lucky enough to get the unprecedented Deadpool 2 (suggested tag-line: Dead Pooler), this most likely wouldn’t be an issue. It’s still pretty impressive for a first-time feature director and one gets the feeling he embraced the budgetary challenges presented due to his effects background.

The important thing is that I had an absolute blast with the majority of the movie from the very first moment. As in, it features possibly the best opening credits sequence in history. Then you have Ryan Reynolds showing that it was worth his remorseless guerilla campaign to acquire the role. On the flip side, Morena Baccarin somehow manages to meet his over the top performance head on and provide a great counterpoint to him. What is it about dudes from Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place that bring out the best in her?

Admittedly, I’m tuned to this film’s frequency. I was getting every in-joke about Reynolds’ career, superhero movie conventions and studio politics that it lobbed at the audience. While at times, there’s an almost This is the End level of self-scrutiny involved that will reward fans, its neither in your face enough or so reliant upon inside baseball to require knowing the troubled history of the film to enjoy it. Like a Zucker film, when the comedy is flowing, there’s often multiple gags being set up at once. Sometimes what seems like gratuitous violence actually sets up great payoffs further down the line.

Maximum effort, Fox.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

Aisle of the Damned- 7/22/15: The Merry Marvel Marching Society

75% of the time, it works every time.

We’re still working on getting the audio better, but a ragged labor of love is just right for talking about Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and where the MCU stands at the official end of Phase Two. STEPHANIE BROWN* ALERT: We remain fanboys of Feige’s Moviehouse of Ideas. We also start griping about DC Comics since the New 52 relaunch. As you do.

*She still remains Spoiler in our hearts.

Music:
The Aquabats: Stuck in a Movie
Phantogram: When I’m Small

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men 5

We’re two for three in superhero movies so far this summer. Bryan Singer’s welcome return to the X-Men franchise is incredibly successful with Days of Future Past. I’m not sure that I can say I enjoyed it more than First Class, which I enjoyed initially and have liked even more with subsequent viewings, but between the two of them, the franchise has officially been rescued from the God-awful Last Stand and only slightly better Origins: Wolverine that were nearly the one-two punch that killed this cash cow. (Maybe I should have hoped for that so the characters could return to the Marvel fold, but we’ll let it go.)

Loosely adapted from one of the most popular stories that the characters have ever been involved in, it begins in an undisclosed future where mutants and many humans have been hunted down by the robotic Sentinels from the comic books. We get to see a few of the X-characters in this future that I honestly never believed would appear unless it was the kind of crap cameo that Brett Ratner relegated Psyclocke to. We get Blink, man. I am honestly flabbergasted about that one. And she is done well. (For those that don’t know, Blink is a popular mutant that creates portals. She seems depowered and decidedly non-lilac in this instance, but still.) It feels much less like the mutants of the film are getting short shrift here just to pack in as many as possible the way some of the lesser movies have done. In a departure from comic lore, Wolverine is sent back in time to stop the Sentinel program from ever being started. (In the comics, it was Kitty Pryde that did the honors, which I would have welcomed instead of getting yet another Wolverine-centric movie, but the bean counters at Fox apparently think only his bub-ness sells tickets, First Class to the contrary.)

It is a little surprising to me that Singer seems more at ease with the cast of First Class over the runtime than those of the original film since Matthew Vaughn was at the helm for that one. I guess maybe he was hands-on as a producer? In any case, aside from some clunky exposition that even Patrick Stewart can’t keep from sounding overdone (and he has a lot of experience with exposition from Star Trek) the movie gets going quickly and doesn’t stop often. It all comes out a bit Terminator-ish, but then Marvel beat Cameron to the punch by a couple of years so all’s fair.

The time-travel reset button is a brilliant thing to do on multiple fronts. Number one, it gives the people currently making the films a chance to eliminate all the horrible decisions made when Fox was in the mentality that the X-Men films a) needed to be forced into a trilogy, because that’s just how it’s done and b) needed to be crapped out as soon as possible in order to punish Bryan Singer for taking a job directing Superman Returns. I think making that movie was punishment enough. Number two, it allows the use of both the original characters and the new cast that earned the right to continue the series. Number three, it creates the possibility of doing two equally deserving continuities, one in the past and one in the present going forward. If this is Fox trying to play catch up with Marvel Studios, all I can say is bravo for doing it in an incredibly inventive and dramatically fulfilling way compared to Sony and their botched Spider-Man experiment.

Even though it is yet another movie with Wolverine front and center, we get to spend a lot of time with Charles (Professor X) and Erik (Magneto) in both timelines, and the film is all the better because of it. Their relationship is by far the most interesting part of this series and First Class made that painfully obvious. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender continue to be fantastic in their roles. At this point they own them just as much as Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. Combine that with pretty meaty parts for Mystique and Beast and you have a much more rounded ensemble film than it could have been. They lucked out when they cast Jennifer Lawrence and they seem to know it, making her an integral part of the story. As per the aforementioned Blink and Kitty (Ellen Page, returning as one of the two good things from X3 worth saving), as well as other mutants like Iceman, Bishop and Storm, they aren’t really given much to do for an arc, but they’re well used enough in action sequences that they don’t feel like they’re given short shrift. Many others have glorified cameos, but nothing feels particularly forced.

The only other new characters to truly be of note are pretty much Evan Peters as Qucksilver and Peter Dinklage as Bolivar Trask. Both are excellent. For all the hubbub about Quicksilver appearing in both this film and the second Avengers film, I doubt there will be much similarity in the portrayals. In Future Past, Qucksilver, really only brought in for the purpose of one action scene, is less the abrasive speedster from the comics and is instead an carbon copy of DC Comics’ Impulse with a worse costume. An ADHD-riddled kid with bad hair and a penchant for being charmingly annoying. The action scene in question is possibly the most fun scene in the entire film, so it’s understandable that Singer was so hyped to use him.

Trask does horrible things in his quest to realize his dream of the Sentinels. He cautions that mutants will replace humans, citing Neanderthal man’s disappearance as a warning. (Of course he wouldn’t be privy to the current theory that Neanderthals actually interbred with cro-magnon.) We’re given glimpses of his life that indicate he’s a genius and he talks about doing a lot of good things for humanity. But it’s obvious he doesn’t see mutants as humanity, only as a means to an end. They don’t exactly subtle-up the Nazi metaphors. And just to make one statement about who would normally be one of the villains of the film, it was nice to see Richard Nixon portrayed as an actual human being and not a complete cartoon bad-guy for once. The government and the military aren’t shown to be evil or even necessarily in favor of wiping out mutants. They simply get used by Trask as more means to his end.

The movie is paced elegantly with never a dull moment, but also never being overwhelming. It feels like all of Singer’s superhero movie experience has been leading to this moment where he finally feels comfortable with all the things he was holding back on in the second film. (Having the brass at Fox on his side instead of demanding Jon Peters-esque changes on a whim it probably helps.) The action sequences feel fresh, despite several of them having a lot in common with previous installments which is a testament to their presentation and the quality of the effects. There is no question in my mind why this movie cost so much and it honestly seems worth every penny. It is polished and even the questionable CGI just makes it seem that much more comic book-y.

After seeing the teaser at the end which brought many a “What the hell?” from the crowd in our theater, I am very much looking forward to seeing what Singer, Vaughn and their cohorts bring to us next.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

ASM2

I’m sure this will be a common refrain in the reviews of Amazing Spider-Man 2, but this is a film with a severe bought of multiple personality disorder. The parts that are good are absolutely splendid. It reaches higher highs than the previous film. But it also has lower lows and where they go wrong, they go full-steam ahead into the muck. Like the previous installment, it is a film that echoes the worst parts of Marvel’s franchise-building in Iron Man 2 and magnifies them. What makes this so frustrating, so absolutely maddening, is that the makings of a good Spider-Man movie are here and they are so close that you can touch them.

I really want to like this movie and there are parts of it that I adore, but it is so schizophrenic that it feels like three different movies at once. Seeing it in a double feature with Captain America: The Winter Soldier playing second only magnified the issues with the film, showing how these types of films can be done right (while understanding that Spidey and Cap are two completely different characters.) The point is that In its fervor to create a “Spider-Man Universe” that it can milk year after year (they’ve announced a plan to toss out a movie annually featuring characters like the Sinister Six and Venom), Sony has tried to shortcut the Marvel plan that slowly, over many years, brought them to being the biggest movie franchise in history. It’s easy to see why other companies want to emulate them. But Sony and DC seem to have missed the point of how well planned and executed those films are and how long it took to do it right.

So let’s get down to what the best parts of the film are. The things that director Marc Webb does right deserve a high level of praise and I want to give him his due for what works. I don’t intend to simply drop a deuce on his front door and leave. There’s too much to like here for that.

First off, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield feel as if they were made for their parts and dropped into Webb’s lap from on high with a choir of angels singing “Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood.” Their chemistry is off the charts and it leads to a welcome expansion of the seeds that made the first film work on the level it did. (I’ve softened on the first film in subsequent viewings, but I would not say my rating has changed.) Stone especially is such a welcome presence that I would say she seems wasted here if they weren’t relying so heavily on her. Her Gwen Stacy is, overall for the complete arc of the film, the best written and best performed character in this franchise. She was already in an ascendency in Hollywood, mostly from her comedy work, and it’s easy to see why. She has an easy charm, a disarming intelligence and she looks fantastic. Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for her.

Andrew Garfield does a great job portraying the wise-cracking side of Spider-Man and displays his everyman qualities very well considering he’s a muscled teen heartthrob. He had a few of those moments in the original movie and this is yet another example of the film improving on what came before by giving him more to do as Spider-Man. Taking advantage of not being hampered by an origin story, Garfield seems to be more free to be playful when he’s out doing the hero-thing. I’m not sure how much is him and how much is a stuntman/CGI at any given time (though it does look like there is a LOT of computerized Spidey in the action sequences) but he simply looks like he’s having fun for a lot of the run time. And when things get really serious he makes a subtle but appropriate mood shift. Man do I wish I could plug these actors into the Raimi series. I may not dislike Tobey Maguire, but his Parker feels all wrong compared to Garfield’s.

To go along with that playful attitude, we are given action sequences that simply feel a lot more… well, Spider-Man-like. His opening gambit chasing a hijacked semi-truck is so much fun that one wishes it could stretch across the entire film. The way he involves every day New Yorkers and his environment into his battles feels much more organic than in the first film where things like the construction crane sequence made me groan audibly and with force. The film looks much more confident to be itself with Peter’s brighter template and not confine itself as being so dour, emulating Nolan to a degree. And not only are the action sequences filmed better, but they are written better. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud several times over Peter’s quippy banter that feels lifted directly from one of the better comics. Not every joke lands and sometimes it feels like they’re trying too hard, but then so does Spidey in general sometimes, so it makes complete sense.

Now on to what unfortunately doesn’t work. I’ve got two words for you: Jamie Foxx. I’ve praised Foxx in the past after his work in Django Unchained. Of course I have seen him around since his In Living Color days. But his version of Electro is just completely off in it’s own little suborbital space station. His origin and character arc (or lack thereof) feel like they’re lifted whole cloth from one of the Batman films. Everything about the character reeks of 90s camp. From the bizarre combover to the obvious mental illness played for comedic effect to the sudden and inexplicable character changes that don’t constitute an arc so much as a schism. (As part of his plot, there’s also a male version of a female character from the comics named Dr. Kafka who is played as such a broad German mad doctor caricature that he reminded me of Mel Brooks in The Muppet Movie.)  It is all straight out of Batman Forever. The real problem with that is simply the fact that this movie isn’t Batman Forever and it doesn’t fit at all. I am not sure who’s fault it is that he was portrayed this way. Foxx has a tendency to be big and brash so it’s certainly conceivable that he could have insisted on hamming things up, but in the end Webb is responsible for getting him to have a tone that matches the rest of the film.

In the meantime, you have Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn. His performance is adequate but all over the place, starting out strong but degrading into hysterics. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that he ends up as Green Goblin. The advertising materials have made that quite clear. He is the most troublesome part of the film, not so much because they skip over Norman Osbourne’s tenure as the Goblin or how he turns himself into him (though those are part of a larger problem I’ll address in a second), but because the transformation feels so shoehorned into the film. It feels like Sony’s forced use of Venom all over again. You can practically hear the gears smoking in the writers’ heads trying to force certain elements into the story with a mallet simply to meet an expected plot-point and set up Sony’s required spin-offs. Like they’d done an Electro story and then were told they had to find a way to include Gobby. The reasons for Harry’s motivation are so undercooked that if you stuck a toothpick in there, there would be more batter than cake. It feels so much like Venom in Spider-Man 3 that you can practically hear Topher Grace.

(I’ll give it points for how it handles Rhino but it is difficult to explain that without going into spoiler territory.)

It’s good that Electro was used, even if I feel he was wasted. The use of The Lizard in the first film, for all I disliked about the story surrounding him, was one of the highlights. I’m glad they’re not trying to tell the exact same story the exact same way it was done in the Raimi films. But it feels like in their drive to distance themselves from that series (which, keep in mind, includes an installment which many people feel to be the best superhero film ever made) they are changing things for no other reason BUT to distance themselves and aren’t thinking things through long term. What is the big hurry when they’ve already committed themselves to being in the Spider-Man business for the foreseeable future? It’s not the change itself that’s the problem. At issue is the fact that these changes don’t make any logical sense and actually are imposing unnecessary restrictions on the films that they may not recover from and/or are wasting opportunities. Why in God’s name is this series so obsessed with tying every single thing that happens to Oscorp? I mean, we get it. Evil corporations are evil, blah blah blah. But the backstory involving Peter’s parents, which eats up a good portion of the film, has the same effect on Spider-Man as Burton’s grafting of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey had on Alice in Wonderland. It misses the point entirely. Spider-Man is just some random guy that was in the wrong place at the right time. Building a complicated mythology in which everything from Peter’s powers to his family history to every villain he fights being involved in some huge conspiracy with Oscorp is extraordinarily limiting. Its effect on these films isn’t just stretching credibility (even for comic book logic) but making things repetitious for a character renowned for having a bench of well-defined and diverse bad guys that lags behind only Batman and maybe The Flash.

The way this film is put together makes me feel like it is far more concerned with seeding future entries than what’s going on right now. It’s the same issues that people had with Iron Man 2 and the way so much of it was given over to SHIELD, except that movie was simply better made. (Rourke and Rockwell are better actors and Favreau knew when to pull them back, for one thing.)

I don’t like saying these things. I want a good Spider-Man movie. There’s still a chance of getting a good one out of this crew. But something has to change, be it the writers or the brass at Sony because right now they’re too focused on churning out mediocre films with moments of brilliance. Amazing Spider-Man 2’s best moments are head and shoulders above the first film, but it’s problems are greater and make it a step-down overall. I still highly recommend it to people that enjoyed the first film because you’re going to get something out of it, but it’s far from what it could be.

(Two and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Have a little Captain in you?

How do you manage to do an apolitical political thriller? It seems unlikely, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier has managed to pull it off.

The title is only slightly misleading because the actual Winter Soldier, while excellently used and portrayed, is not really the main focus of the film. In fact, directors the Russo Brothers, formally major creative forces on TV with Community and Arrested Development, juggle many balls in the air. The film deals with the political intrigue of the spy organization SHIELD, Cap’s continuing work relationship post-Avengers with Black Widow (calling the film a team-up between them would not be out of line), the introduction of his comic book compatriot The Falcon, the struggles with the Winter Soldier himself and his dealings with being a man out of time. Joe and Anthony Russo may have seemed like strange choices to helm a film like this, but like a lot of Marvel’s creative gambles it pays off with them making the transition to an action movie with style.

The plot of the film is straight out of Alex Jones’ worst nightmares. It had the prescience to be written before we found out the NSA was unconstitutionally spying on all of us, but given the ever-expanding definition of the Patriot Act, drone-strikes and the horrors of the TSA, it probably just seemed like an extension of anxiety over a security state that seems at best a necessary evil and at worst something that tentacle hentai could be a metaphor for.* Nick Fury, a major presence in the film, is the keeper of secrets and a spy’s spy. This has caused friction before, but he’s always come across in the films as ultimately a good guy who sometimes makes questionable decisions. But what happens if someone without his shadow of a moral compass ends up in charge of the most powerful intelligence organization in the world? Bad things, as you would assume.

It adds up to a pretty good plot, but what really makes Cap 2 the best of the Marvel solo films (and arguably the equal of Avengers, despite being a very different type of film at its core) is the fact that all of the disparate elements feed into each other and the very well-done action sequences inform the plot rather than seeming like an obligatory pause before getting back to more exposition.

Captain America (or Steve Rogers if you prefer) is sneered at by many of the cynical pop culture consumers these days. Much like Superman, he’s mocked for the very qualities that make him truly different in a sea of post-90s antiheroes and psychopaths in capes. Luckily Chris Evans has succeeded in capturing the qualities which make him interesting and not through mocking him or belittling him for being old fashioned. (For a jeering example of that kind of deconstruction, see Disney’s Lone Ranger debacle.) I personally believe a lot of this success is because of Marvel starting where they did with the character in Joe Johnston’s fantastic go-round showing his origin before dropping him into our modern world as a fish out of water. We’ve seen how he was in his own time and Winter Soldier does a great job building on that foundation. It’s true, there’s a lot of Black Widow and Nick Fury in the film. But this isn’t because Steve’s a weak or bland character. Quite the opposite. It works because it allows these other characters to bounce off him. He is the moral rock of Marvel’s cinematic universe, the personification of a lost era of ideals. Rather than seeing him broken down and compromised, we see him rub off on the others. The reason we need other larger than life characters in Captain America is to show just how much he effects the lives of others and makes them want to be better.

Black Widow has her best role to date and shows that she could carry her own film. Her playful chemistry with Rogers and the way she helps him survive the spy game are reason enough to include her, but her character growth in the process is one of the better arcs that we’ve seen from Marvel. I have always been of the opinion that Scarlett Johanson was serviceable in the role but didn’t bring anything particularly unique to it other than looking curvy in a tight suit. Winter Soldier has made me reevaluate that. She’s slowly made the character her own. At this point, I can’t see another person in the role.

As for new characters, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon is a bit bland in design, forgoing one of the more ridiculous costumes in all of comics for some generic military tech straight out of Iron Man 2. However, any visual issues do not extend to the writing. The work by Mackie and the screenplay establish him quickly as a formidable friend to Steve, not just because he’s a good man and a soldier, but because he’s one of the few people who can seem to understand some of the things that Steve is going through as a combat vet.

It’s hard to go more into the film’s specifics without spoiling some of the best secrets and moments, including those that involve the Winter Soldier himself. His identity may be common knowledge to comic book readers, but Marvel and Disney were nice enough to try not to spoil it for new fans and I’ll respect their decision. What I will say is that some unexpected characters return and in every case it is handled deftly and in interesting fashion.

Winter Soldier does a great job building on the films that have come before and even the Agents of SHIELD TV series. I think a person who has seen them will get more out of it simply through the larger context. However, it does a good enough job with the characters that I don’t think having a working knowledge of the film universe is a necessary precursor to enjoying it. It may even bring in some new fans. If this level of development, meaningful action and imaginative world building reflecting a stylized but recognizable reality does not bring people in, I doubt much of anything would.

(Five damns given out of five)

* (I don’t tend to get into politics in this particular site for good reason. I’ll just say I have Ron Swanson as my facebook avatar and leave it at that. Given this film and Iron Man’s penchant for telling the government to screw off, I asked Bryan if I was crazy for thinking that the Marvel Cinematic Universe had something of a Libertarian bent, perhaps as a way of circumventing criticism from either of the more traditional modern political parties. He said I wasn’t crazy. So I could be wrong, but as with all things I’m sure some of it comes down to what you bring into it.)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Thor: The Dark World

Come to daddy. The worst thing about Thor: The Dark World is the greasy hair. Apparently, despite their civilization lasting since the dawn of time, they haven’t figured out how to make shampoo because everyone looks like they haven’t washed their coifs in weeks.

That aside, the second follow-up to The Avengers succeeds in being probably my favorite sequel produced by Marvel so far. (We’ll have to see how the second Captain America comes out as the trailer is pretty freakin’ great.)

So first things first. I saw the new film in 3D so I could see the exclusive Cap preview. Is it necessary to see Thor 2 in 3D? Not at all. If I see it again (and I just may), I will be going with the standard option. The 3D does your standard mediocre conversion job, much like Iron Man 3. (Though this is certainly better than the awful job that was done on the first Thor.)

On to the most important things: how is the movie itself? I’m giving it the same grade as Iron Man 3, but I think I like this film a smidge better. The main differences are that while I had my problems with the last Iron Man film to be sure, Shane Black’s dialogue was fantastic. While there are some great moments of dialogue in Thor, it is certainly not at the same level. However, I enjoyed the story more (it didn’t seem like as much of a retread of the previous film as the pattern the Iron Man films have followed) and overall I liked the tone of the film more despite some puzzling, but not devastating, choices with the editing.

The film borrows heavily from Walt Simonson’s run on the character for its main plot involving a race of dark elves from before our universe began. They sought to return the universe to the darkness that they knew and were put down by Bor, father of Odin. If there’s a flaw in the film’s storytelling it is this bit; while the motivations of the elves in many ways mimic those of General Zod from this summer’s Man of Steel in destroying what is to try to bring back a facsimile of what was, less attention is paid to giving the elves or their leader, Malekith, much exposition as to their motivation. It’s forgivable to me because in classic myth there is rarely clear-cut motivation. Characters of these archetypes are usually simply good or evil. Creators/keepers of the status quo or destroyers. And that’s the case with comics as well. I adore Simonson’s run as possibly the best use of the character in his long and storied history, but I don’t remember Malekith being particularly deep on the page either. I just remember his looking like a black and blue version of Frank Gorshin on Star Trek. What’s clear is that they’re bad guys, just like other one-dimensional villains that have run the gamut from the great Star Wars stormtroopers to the hilarious drug-peddling ninjas in Miami Connection. Faceless lackies meant to be menacing.

Marvel adapts the plot to fit with the more cosmic-oriented Asgard of the film universe. This is just fine with me because I have always found the myth-based and cosmic lines of Marvel to be in largely similar in their use of confusing, logic-challenged wonkiness in service of big ideas and cool concepts. The elves are going to use a floating liquid called the “Aether” to remake the universe. How does that work? Hell if I know. But I don’t particularly care because the fact is, it does. Let’s take the maguffin at face value.
And the film delves far more into the myth and history of this particular version of Asgard than the first film which was largely an Earth-based origin story. It does a pretty good job balancing the action of the marauding elves with the family drama of the Asgardian royals and the subplots involving Jane Foster and her superscience pals from the first film.

Unsurprisingly Loki gets a pretty major role following his previous popular turns and his relationship with Thor remains prickly and emotional. Most of the actors and characters that I enjoyed from the original film return intact with Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo both in fine form as Thor’s parents. I’m one of the few defenders of Natalie Portman as Foster, feeling there’s a detectable chemistry between her and Thor. (Odd how some people seem to see it and some people don’t.) I’m also one of the people that actually really enjoyed Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård and I, for one, loved how they were used in the film. I hate to drag other people’s opinions into my review, but I’ve seen complaining about the amount of ‘comic relief’ in the film. Some of it from the same people complaining about Man of Steel being too serious. All I can say is that the comedy worked great for me and I laughed throughout the film, never finding it to be too much for the heft of the story to bear. With the “wibbly wobbly timey wimpy” stuff in play, I don’t have any problem with being tongue in cheek. That was a big part of what I thought made The Avengers work so well. This isn’t on the same level, but it works. It doesn’t surprise me that Whedon came in to help on a few scenes.

The only characters that really get short changed are the Warriors Three. They do get their moments, but mostly they are fleeting. Here’s hoping they get further exposure in the next film.

I would have welcomed the return of Kenneth Branagh as director, but for a first feature, Dark World is a hell of a ‘debut’ for TV vet Alan Taylor. The film ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, true to its comic book roots. I can’t wait for the third chapter in the franchise and look forward to the big lunk’s return in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

(Four damns given out of five)