Captain America: the Winter Soldier review

On Saturday, 12 April 2014, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Beruk A., and Ken N. at the Apple Cinemas in Cambridge, Mass., for Captain America [2]: the Winter Soldier. We all enjoyed Disney/Marvel’s latest superhero sequel, as well as dinner with Matt J. at Summer Shack afterward.

The Winter Soldier wallpaper
Captain America 2

Plot: The Winter Soldier mostly takes place after the events of the 2011 Captain America film and The Avengers, both of which should be seen to understand this movie. Super soldier Steve Rogers is still a man out of time but has adapted enough to work for covert ops agency SHIELD thwarting terrorists. His patriotic idealism is tested, however, when he learns of a scheme to pre-empt crime that is hijacked by an old enemy….

Marvel Comics readers will recognize much of the story from Ed Brubaker’s strong run, while more casual viewers will notice the change in tone from the World War II heroics of the first movie and the superhero team-up of The Avengers to an action/thriller in The Winter Soldier. I’m pleased to see Marvel showing its range, from straightforward costumed crime fighters to cosmic comedy (Thor 2, the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy).

There are some minor plot holes, such as why would Washington, D.C., rely on just one agency for security or why more of the other Avengers aren’t mentioned during crisis situations, but the direction and pacing move quickly enough to ignore most of them. ABC’s Agents of SHIELD, which has suffered in comparison with Arrow and other shows for much of the current television season, is affected by continuity changes from The Winter Soldier.

Acting: Comic book movie veteran Chris Evans continues to do solid work as Rogers/Capt. America, who is both weary of still fighting after decades (some of which were spent on ice) and resolute in his defense of truth, justice, and the American way (even if that’s another hero’s catchphrase).

He is joined by Scarlett Johansson, who gets a decent amount to do as fellow Avenger Natalia Romanova/Black Widow. As the Lucy preview showed, it’s about time a superheroine leads a feature film — don’t get me started on WB/DC’s foot dragging with Wonder Woman.

Samuel L. Jackson shows some vulnerability as superspy Nick Fury, supported by Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill. It was nice to glimpse Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Stan Lee as a Smithsonian guard, and Jenny Agutter as World Security Council member Hawley.

Robert Redford, who starred in some of the best political thrillers of the ’70s, brings smarmy gravitas as council leader Alexander Pierce. Like the character Rhodey in the Iron Man movies, Anthony Mackie represents African-American heroes and is (we hope) more than a sidekick as Sam Wilson/Falcon.

I have many fond memories of Captain America fighting villains alongside the winged Falcon. The cameos by Batroc the Leaper and other villains are also amusing for those in the know. I won’t “spoil” the identity of the so-called Winter Soldier, but note that this movie serves more to introduce the cybernetic assassin as an antagonist than to resolve that plot thread.

Direction: Shane Black, whose Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang helped revive Robert Downey Jr.’s career, does a good job juggling comic book, espionage, and action elements in The Winter Soldier. The dialogue is rarely stilted, and he successfully introduces or reintroduces an ever-increasing number of characters.

The stealthy infiltrations and fight choreography with Capt. America or Black Widow are nicely done, although I do wish that some of the scenes on the helicarriers (no “spoiler” there; they’re in the trailers) were clearer. The visual effects were pretty good, and it was refreshing to see a major cinematic battle in which an entire city wasn’t trashed for a change.

The opening and closing credits were decent, and the soundtrack was also good, if not as memorable as for other superhero movies. Overall, I’d give Captain America: the Winter Soldier, which is rated PG-13 for violence and occasional language, four out of five stars, an 8 out of 10, or a B+/A-. I still like Captain America: the First Avenger and The Avengers more, but this is another solid Disney/Marvel superhero flick.

Iron Man 3 review

On Sunday, 5 May 2013, Janice and I met Beruk A., Sara F. & Josh C., fellow blogger Ken G., and Ken’s friends Carly and Nick for Iron Man 3 at the Entertainment Cinemas Fresh Pond in Cambridge, Mass. We all enjoyed the superhero sequel. I’ll try to avoid “spoilers” in this review, but note that some of the links enclosed below may lead to story details.

Iron Man 3 desktop
Men of metal

Plot: Iron Man 3 picks up shortly after the events of The Avengers, Disney/Marvel’s blockbuster team-up movie. Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, inventor Tony Stark is still tinkering on his suits of armor and has a steady relationship with Pepper Potts, but storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.

A flashback to 1999 shows us Stark’s more narcissistic ways, as well as the roots of some of his current problems. He hooks up with scientist Maya Hansen but ignores her research, as well as Aldrich Killian, the then-geeky founder of Advanced Idea Mechanics (AIM). The pseudoscience is based on Warren Ellis’ “Extremis” storyline from Marvel Comics.

In the present, Stark is suffering from panic attacks after fighting aliens in The Avengers. A mysterious man calling himself “the Mandarin” takes credit for terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. (These were uncomfortable to watch so soon after the Boston Marathon bombings.) Hansen’s Extremis technology is involved, as are the Mandarin, AIM, and a plot to attack Air Force One.

Soon, Tony must deal with personal attacks on him and those closest to him, including Pepper, security chief Happy Hogan, and Col. James “Rhodey” Rhodes, a.k.a. War Machine/Iron Patriot. The armored Avenger must rediscover his strengths and stop his enemies.

Acting: As in the previous Iron Man films, Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the cocksure Tony Stark is the big draw. Downey’s high-strung, wisecracking persona is nearly indistinguishable at this point from Stark’s. He is ably supported by Gwyneth Paltrow as the cool executive Pepper Potts, former director Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and Don Cheadle as stalwart Rhodey.

They are joined by newcomers Rebecca Hall as troubled Maya Hansen, Guy Pearce as the sketchy Aldrich Killian, and Ben Kingsley sporting an odd accent as the Mandarin (who has been altered from a racist Asian stereotype to an Osama bin Laden-like figure). Ty Simpkins plays a bratty youngster who helps Tony when he’s at his lowest. The supporting characters’ motivations aren’t completely explained, but who’s good and who’s bad does become clear.

Direction: I enjoyed Shane Black’s noir comedy Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, which helped revive Downey’s career. He allows the cast to trade witty banter and relax into their roles, despite the dire circumstances the characters find themselves in.

A few reviewers recommended approaching Iron Man 3 as a comedy that happens to involve superheroes rather than as a straight superhero movie. I agree — if you’re able to enjoy the relationships and not worry too much about political commentary or plot holes, you’ll like Iron Man 3.

The pacing flags a bit when Stark must rebuild his machinery and track down his enemies, and the movie becomes more predictable about two-thirds of the way through. On the other hand, the end and postcredits coda are still satisfying. I haven’t seen the China-only footage (no doubt designed for major audiences and investors).

Visual effects: Adi Granov’s designs for Stark’s suits see several variations, and the attacks on Stark’s California mansion and Air Force One are impressive, even if they’ve been spoiled a bit in trailers and commercials.

The final battle — between Iron Men, Iron Patriot, and Extremis-powered goons on an abandoned oil rig — is explosive, but it suffers from length, too many parties flying around too quickly, and the fact that it takes place at night (as with many other superhero flicks, so that computer-generated imagery is less noticeable).

Score: The soundtrack is decent, and like the 1970s-style closing credits, it harkens back to the previous Iron Man films. There isn’t a memorable theme, but Iron Man 3‘s music does heighten the suspense.

Rating: I enjoyed the quieter character-driven moments and some of Downey hamming it up more than the set-piece scenes, even though, as a comic book fan, I would want to see him suited up more often.

Overall, I’d give Iron Man 3, which is 130 minutes long and rated PG-13 for violence and innuendo, an 8 out of 10, three and a half stars, or a B+. I liked it more than Iron Man 2, if not as much as the first Iron Man or The Avengers.

I’ve been pretty busy for the past few weekends, but I’ll report on them separately. In the coming weeks, I look forward to Star Trek: Into Darkness and Man of Steel (the latest Superman movie, not to be confused with Iron Man). As Stan “the Man” Lee says, Excelsior!

The Amazing Spider-Man belated review

Between trying to complete a big project at work, bad news of serious illness and unemployment among family and friends, and last weekend’s visit to Upstate New York, I’ve again fallen behind in blogging. At least I won’t run out of movies, television, and games to review anytime soon.

On Sunday, 8 July 2012, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H. and Sara F. & Josh C. for The Amazing Spider-Man. Sony’s superhero reboot was more fun than some of its predecessors, if not as memorable.

The Amazing Spider-Man
Spidey gets new threads from Marc Webb

The good: I thought that the cast of The Amazing Spider-Man was strong, with lanky, wisecracking Andrew Garfield taking on the role of Peter Parker/Spidey from the mopey Tobey Maguire. The chemistry between Garfield and Emma Stone‘s Gwen Stacy was palpable, and I found Stone more appealing than Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson.

Cliff Robertson is ably replaced as Peter’s honorable Uncle Ben by Martin Sheen (who knows a thing or two in real life about troubled children). Sally Field is a long way from Gidget as Aunt May, and Denis Leary is Gwen’s tough father, NYPD Capt. Stacy. Speaking of parental figures, Rhys Ifans, who was charismatic in the SyFy Channel’s Neverland, brings proper pride and pathos to Dr. Curt Connors.

I also liked that The Amazing Spider-Man‘s webslinging seemed to rely more on stuntmen in costumes rather than computer-generated imagery. Of course, visual effects have no doubt improved in the past decade or so.

The bad: One of my main complaints is that, in its attempt to keep the movie rights from reverting back to Disney/Marvel, Sony rehashed Spider-Man’s origin story barely a decade after Sam Raimi did a good job of adapting it to the silver screen. Garfield spends most of his screen time out of costume or unmasked, and the subplot of his missing (scientist or spy) parents is teased but mercifully dropped.

The advertising for The Amazing Spider-Man gave away the identity of the Lizard as the main villain. He’s formidable and has ties to Peter and to Oscorp (which played a major role in the Raimi/Maguire version). Still, he’s not as fearsome as Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin or Alfred Molina’s Doctor Octopus.

The ugly: As glad as I am to see Peter’s ingenuity return with mechanical web shooters rather than organic ones, I’m not a fan of Spidey’s skaterboi racing suit in The Amazing Spider-Man. I prefer the classic red-and-blue costume over the “ribbed for your pleasure” hyper-textured look that has been popular in everything from J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot to Zach Snyder’s upcoming Man of Steel.

Even though the plot element of Peter’s missing parents is dropped, aptly named director Marc Webb suggests that it was somehow his destiny to be bitten by a mutant spider and that his subsequent heroics are less a matter of personal ethical choice and more one of heredity. This undermines Uncle Ben’s “with great power comes great responsibility” mantra and echoes some of the missteps of the “Bring on the Dark” Broadway musical. Peter’s hero’s journey doesn’t need those complications.

I also noticed that a scene with Spider-Man fighting reptilian mutated police was truncated, but that was for the best. Otherwise, it would have been like the slugfest between Ang Lee’s Hulk and giant dogs. It’s also too bad that other New York-based superheroes, such as the Fantastic Four, Daredevil, or the Avengers, couldn’t be shown in the background because different studios hold the rights.

The verdict: Overall, I enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man more than I expected to. The cast made up for some plot weaknesses, and my onetime hometown New York City looked as good as ever. I’d put it just after Raimi’s first two superhero flicks, but I definitely liked it more than his third one.

I enjoyed The Avengers more, but The Amazing Spider-Man is a more family-friendly comic book adaptation than The Dark Knight Rises (which I’ll try to belatedly review soon). I’d give The Amazing Spider-Man, which is rated PG-13 for violence, about a 7 out of 10, three out of five stars, or a solid B.

The superheroes of spring 2012

I’ve fallen behind in blogging again, but here’s the first in what I hope will be a series of posts to catch up on what I’ve been up to as spring slides into summer. Now that the genre television season has wound down, let’s look back at some shows that I liked.

As I’ve mentioned before, there has been a lot of good animation to enjoy this past year. Avatar: the Legend of Korra is my favorite of the recent batch of cartoons. Nickelodeon’s sequel to its successful Avatar: the Last Airbender continues that show’s Asian-style artwork, inspiring world-building, and escalating intrigues. (Note: some of the enclosed links have “spoilers.”)

Korra wallpaper
Nickelodeon's new Avatar TV series

As fellow blogger Thomas K.Y. has noted, Korra‘s adolescent characters are a bit harder to sympathize with than Avatar‘s wandering children. However, the setting and story more than make up for that to me. Republic City resembles a dieselpunk/fantasy China of the early 20th century, and the conflict between people who can “bend” or control the elements (air, earth, wind, and fire) and those who can’t has led to some tense moments.

I’ve also been impressed with the first episode of Disney’s Tron: Uprising, which may join the Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: Clone Wars in using computer animation to flesh out a cinematic sequel that initially underwhelmed critics. In contrast, Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness, Transformers: Prime, and G.I. Joe: Renegades are entertaining, but they’re not as memorable as additions to their respective franchises.

Cartoon’s Green Lantern: the Animated Series started out slowly with simplistic designs based on Bruce Timm’s, but it has steadily incorporated elements of recent comic book storylines, including the proliferation of cosmic factions based on different colors and emotions. How to Train Your Dragon: the Series will joining a competitive field.

In more traditional animation, the Cartoon Networks’ Thundercats revival has also mixed retro nostalgia with more modern animation and world-building to good effect. It’s friendlier to younger audiences than Korra or Tron, but I’ve enjoyed the reboot so far. I hope that the next Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtles can do the same.

I wasn’t sure about the five-year jump within the Cartoon Network’s Young Justice, but seeing the pre-“52” reboot “Batman family” and returning favorites such as Beast Boy and Wonder Girl has won me over. On a related note, I enjoyed the direct-to-video Justice League: Doom, which had favorite voice actors and lots of fights between superheroes and supervillains, if not a plot accessible to non-fans. Superman vs. the Elite comes out next week, to be followed by the long-awaited Batman: the Dark Knight Returns. I also look forward to next year’s Beware the Batman.

Disney XD’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes has also incorporated bits and pieces of classic and recent plots, from Loki’s treachery (also seen in the live-action Avengers movie, which is still doing well with critics, fans, and the box office) to the infiltration by the shapeshifting Skrulls (“Secret Invasion”). The animation and writing aren’t quite as tight as for Young Justice.

Avengers‘ companion, Ultimate Spider-Man, has several snarky nods to the movie continuity, but I still miss the four-color Spectacular Spider-Man and am not thrilled by the silly humor or de-aging of characters such as the Heroes for Hire.

Cartoon Network’s “DC Nation” animation block of programming on Saturday mornings — Green Lantern and Young Justice (followed by Korra on Nickelodeon) — includes very funny shorts with “Super Best Friends Forever” and Aardman stop motion, as well as glimpses of past favorites such as the Teen Titans Go!

Disney Channel’s “Marvel Universe” block on Sundays (Avengers and Spidey) does give some nice glimpses into the art and characters of its shows, plus how real-world athletes can approach comic book moves. I don’t particularly like the “Marvel Mash-ups,” which dub modern jokes over weakly animated scenes from the 1960s through early 1980s. I may be in the minority of people who prefer the gags of The Looney Tunes Show or Metalocalypse on weeknights to most of Fox’s Sunday night programs.

Coming soon: Police procedurals, supernatural series, and movie reviews!

The Avengers movie review

This past weekend was a good one for superhero fans. Janice and I visited four comic book shops on Free Comic Book Day, including the Comic Stop in Watertown, Massachusetts. I hadn’t visited that store before.

It’s smaller than my usual haunts of the Outer Limits in Waltham and New England Comics and Newbury Comics in Needham, but it was well-organized, and the proprietors were hospitable. I was glad to see that lots of families visited all of the shops for the event. I picked up several free issues for myself, nephews and nieces, and David I.S.

On Sunday, 6 March 2012, I met Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H., Josh C. & Sara F., and their friends Rob & Ginger and their young son for lunch at Italian restaurant Piattini in Boston’s Back Bay. We then met Beruk A. at the AMC Loews 19 on the Boston Common to screen The Avengers, which we all enjoyed.

Marvel's mightiest heroes
Avengers assemble!

Is The Avengers the best superhero movie of all time? I still prefer the 1978 and 1980 Superman films, Pixar’s The Incredibles, and last year’s Captain America, but The Avengers is definitely one of the best live-action adaptations of a team-based comic book so far. I’d put it on par with Watchmen or X-Men 2 in terms of being both faithful to the spirit of the source material and still entertaining.

Disney/Marvel has been building its shared cinematic universe toward The Avengers since at least 2008’s Iron Man. I’m not sure the movie would be particularly accessible to viewers who are unfamiliar with its predecessors or with Marvel’s characters, but for those of us who are fans, The Avengers is a long-awaited reward for our faithfulness.

The Avengers manages to compress several decades of fictional continuity, adhere to comic book tropes such as superheroes fighting when they first meet, and provide enough explosions to launch the summer 2012 movie season. I’ll try not to give away any “spoilers” here, but note that a few of the links in this review may have some.

The basic premise of The Avengers, in both print and film, is that the world’s greatest and most powerful heroes band together to fight a common threat. Of course, getting there is half the fun, at least for the audience, if not the battered costumed characters.

A major strength of recent superhero movies has been in casting good actors and treating the material seriously, without the campy excesses of the 1960s through 1980s. (Since then, we’ve suffered through angsty melodrama with the X-Men, Batman, and others.) It’s no surprise that Robert Downey Jr. is witty and charismatic as “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist” Tony Stark/Iron Man.

Chris Evans holds his own as supersoldier Steve Rogers/Captain America, the team’s moral and tactical leader. Chris Hemsworth is mighty as Thor, Norse god (OK, extradimensional entity) of thunder, and Tom Hiddleston is delightfully smarmy as mischievous nemesis Loki. Scarlett Johansson returns as superspy Natasha Romanov, the only woman in this version of the group (founder Wasp is absent, and Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts has a brief supporting cameo).

Mark Ruffalo joins the merry band as Bruce Banner/the Hulk, the third actor in as many movies to tackle the dual role of compassionate scientist and rage monster. Even though I liked Ed Norton’s paean to Bill Bixby’s TV version, I think Ruffalo did fine with the computer-assisted role, and the Hulk gets some of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg are joined by Colby Smulders as SHIELD agents Col. Nick Fury, Agent Phil Coulson, and Agent Maria Hill, respectively. The Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division is the shadowy organization that initially gathers the high-profile metahumans. Jeremy Renner is no-nonsense as expert marksman Clint Barton/Hawkeye — he’s not quite as flamboyant as his comic book counterparts — a former circus performer or DC’s Green Arrow.

The Avengers sticks pretty close to the original comic book storyline about how Loki’s machinations inadvertently unite a diverse group of heroes. The movie also takes some cues from more recent storylines such as The Ultimates, showing the collateral damage from superpowered beings engaging in fisticuffs in Manhattan.

I did like that the colorful vigilantes eventually found a way to work together to protect humanity from the invading Chitauri. The “Earth’s mightiest heroes” may not see eye to eye –leading to some drama and humor, as seen in previews and trailers — but both their squabbles and eventual teamwork are impressive to watch.

Director Joss Whedon is popular with genre fans for Buffy: the Vampire Slayer/Angel, Firefly/Serenity, and more, and he juggles the many moving parts of The Avengers fairly well. Whedon’s trademark snarky dialogue, strong female characters, and an appreciation for print comics are all present. As the set-piece battles increase in scale and stakes, the movie’s pace quickens somewhat.

As expected, the visual special effects are especially spectacular, with SHIELD’s helicarrier, the Hulk’s rampaging physique, and numerous powers all rendered more realistically than many artists or kids in Halloween costumes could have ever dreamed. The costumes were redesigned to be harmonious, and I’ve long maintained that spandex or tights, if handled properly, can be just as good as the black leather of the X-Men movies. I picked up the HeroClix miniatures, and I look forward to seeing more action figures and Lego sets based on The Avengers.

The soundtrack is evocative, but individual character themes aren’t as memorable as the AC/DC clips that accompany Iron Man. The Avengers has gotten mostly good reviews and has done very well at the box office so far. I doubt that The Amazing Spider-Man reboot or even the dour Batman Rises finale will be as crowd-pleasing as The Avengers.

As with any “juvenile” entertainment, a few critics in the mainstream media gave The Avengers negative reviews. Some of their points are valid — mostly around pacing, some frenetic scenes that are hard to follow, and more characters than time to develop them equally well — but they assume falsely that popcorn entertainment and high art must be mutually exclusive.

As with the other recent Disney/Marvel movies, it’s worth staying after the credits roll for two epilogues (spoiler alert) that tease inevitable sequels. If the quality of the writing, acting, direction, and effects can be maintained while also allowing the characters to develop in their individual movies, I’ll definitely be interested.

I’d give The Avengers, which is rated PG-13 for violence, an 8.5 out of 10, three to four stars, or a B+/A-. It deserves to be on many of the “best comic book movie” lists that can be found online.

We also sat through 20 minutes of previews. I was already interested in Disney/Pixar’s Brave, and I’m now a bit more curious about The Amazing Spider-Man and Alien prequel Prometheus. I am not interested in shoot-’em-up Battleship, Tim Burton’s quirky Dark Shadows, or 1980s flashback Expendables 2. As Stan “the Man” Lee says, Excelsior, true believers!