The Third Time Is The Charm

Rebooting a series with a reworked cast can cause problems, especially when it’s the third time. Most movie lovers try to forget when George Clooney pulled on the black cowl of Batman (and the infamous nipple breastplate) after Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer hung up their capes. Batman and Robin was not a high point in the history of cinema, or in Clooney’s career, either. Thankfully he did Out of Sight the next year and never looked back. With the Spider-man franchise, Tobey Maguire was good in the first two films and then completely self-immolated in the third, while Andrew Garfield was okay in the first but couldn’t save the mess of a sequel. Sony Pictures had changed the name to the Amazing Spider-man, but neither of those films lived up to that promise. I might have skipped Spider-man: Homecoming if not for the introduction of the reboot in Captain America: Civil War. Tom Holland was delightful in the role, and having Marisa Tomei as a non-geriatric Aunt May was a bold and welcome change. (Imagine Robert Downey Jr. hitting on Rosemary Harris. Have you clawed your eyes out yet?)

Marvel sold the rights to the character to Sony, as they had the X-Men to Fox. In the short term, it was a financial help to the company as it transitioned from print comic books into the media powerhouse it’s become. But it meant they couldn’t control a product that they knew intimately. Now Sony (under its Columbia brand) has wisely returned the webslinger to Marvel in a co-production deal, and it has paid off handsomely with a $100 Million plus opening weekend, an 8.1 out of 10 rating on IMDb (the best of any film in the series), and a rejuvenated character that outshines all five previous movies.

Homecoming is literally true. Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield spent their time swinging around Manhattan, since it has all those lovely skyscrapers. Spider-man: Homecoming returns the character to Queens, Peter Parker’s home in the comics. He’s back to being your friendly, neighborhood Spider-man. The “bit by a radio-active (or genetically modified) spider” backstory is dispensed with in a couple of sentences. The production team also put him in a realistic high school, populated with characters that look like they belong there. With Tom Holland you have an actor who is only a couple of years separated from those High School days himself, much closer than either Maguire or Garfield were when they did the role. Finally, the film takes a classic Spider-man villain – The Vulture – and generates a compelling backstory for him.

The story begins in the rubble left by the Avengers fight against the alien invasion of Manhattan. A salvage company run by Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) wins a contract to collect the alien technology that litters the scene following the battle. However, they’re soon shut down by the government after they decide to do the collection themselves in partnership with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Toomes decides to keep the tech they’ve already recovered and, with the help of the Tinkerer (Michael Chernus), turn it into black-market weapons. One thing created is a set of self-propelled set of wings that allows Toomes to fly, turning him into the Vulture.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the events of Captain America: Civil War. We see Peter Parker (Holland) recruited by Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) and transported to Germany for the airport battle, but our viewpoint is Peter’s video diary filmed on his phone. Following the battle, Peter returns home ready to do great things, but he’s ignored by Stark and Happy. He does his own small-scale heroics – and posts videos on the internet – but mostly he’s stuck in High School purgatory. He’s obsessed with the beautiful senior Liz (Lauren Harrier); he’s tormented by Flash (Tony Revolori), a nerd like Peter but one whose father’s bank account is large enough to make him cool; and he hangs with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) while the sardonic Michelle (Zendaya) watches unimpressed. Things change when Peter runs across a robbery team (wearing Avengers masks) using the alien tech provided by Toomes. When Happy ignores Peter’s request for help, Peter decides to track down who’s providing the tech on his own.

Normally the more writers on a project, the worse it turns out, since they have a tendency to muddle the focus. Three writing teams contributed to the screenplay, though the primary team that also has story credit is Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley. Their milieu has been comedy, with the Horrible Bosses movies being their biggest hits, and they bring a cockeyed viewpoint to the story that serves it well. Daley is mostly been known as an actor, starting with “Freaks and Geeks” and spending almost a decade on “Bones” as psychiatrist Lance Sweets, but with more scripts like this that will change. One delightful bit is having the school use corny PSAs recorded by Captain America in the gym class and detention. “I know that technically he’s classified as a terrorist now,” the bored gym teacher says, “but the administration says show these, so I’ll show them.” Beyond the humor, though, the screenwriters know you need a powerful villain, and the action needs to keep flowing. They deliver on both.

Director Jon Watts also has a resumé heavy on comedy, including directing the Onion News Network. But then as his first feature film he made Cop Car, a mean little thriller starring Kevin Bacon. The set pieces on the Staten Island Ferry and at the Washington Monument are thrilling, but they’re also woven into the whole fabric of the film.

It’s a particular delight to watch Keaton. Ever since Night Shift, he’s been inventive and interesting on screen, even in lesser roles. After a long season out of the spotlight, he’s now come roaring back. With Vulture, he matches the effectiveness of Jack Nicholson’s Joker without the over-the-top schtick.

Homecoming’s almost two-and-a-quarter-hour running time flies by. This is a movie you could easily watch several times and be entertained at every viewing. The first time, though, make sure you stay until for the final tag after the credits. It is arguably the funniest one ever for a Marvel movie.

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Critical Mass(ive)

(My apologies for not having posted in a couple of weeks. I’ve moved to Des Moines, IA, so I was a bit busy. I’m back to doing regular reviews now and will start with the behemoth that appeared between posts.)

With its far-flung Universe and interconnected bloodlines, the Marvel Superheroes are a geek’s version of another literary genre: the multi-generational drama. The books of Howard Fast, Jeffrey Archer and others have a commonality with Ironman, Thor, Captain America, et al. They tell big stories that can stretch over multiple volumes, or, in this case, movies. That’s not strange to those who read the early comic books where the plot arc would continue for five or six editions, similar to how Charles Dickens serialized his novels. That’s why AMC Theaters could offer a 27 hour binge viewing of the previous Marvel movies in the lead up to the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. There’s a concern, though, that eventually this could reach a critical mass with Marvel going into meltdown. When does it become too much of a good thing?

For this sequel to the billion dollar hit The Avengers, Writer/Director Joss Whedon throws the viewer into a huge battle right from the start with Ironman (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) attacking a Hydra stronghold in eastern Europe. This follows the first tag at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though to see how the Avengers get to the secret base you’d have to watch the episode of “Marvel’s Agents of Shield” on the Tuesday before the movie’s release. With an assist from robotic sentinels run by Stark’s AI valet, JARVIS (voiced by Paul Bettany), the Avengers make defeat the Hydra forces, but they run into two new characters with powers, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Scarlet Witch manages to give Ironman a major case of paranoia when he discovers the power source Hydra was using for experiments – Loki’s scepter.

Ironman’s fear-centered paranoia causes him to use the scepter to create a new version of the sentinels. But the power in the scepter has an intelligence of its own, and the result is Ultron (voiced by James Spader), who swiftly crushes JARVIS while he creates his own metal body. Tony Stark had envisioned Ultron as a way to protect earth’s population, but Ultron sees that most of the problems are created by people and the earth would be better off without them.

The movie is almost overwhelmed by the first battle sequence. Watching it on a large-format screen with the Dolby Atmos sound system, it’s almost a physical attack on the audience. But Whedon then reins in the action and focuses on the story. Another challenge with the movie is incorporating all the sidereal characters who’ve shown up in other movies: James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) in his War Machine mode, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) a.k.a. Falcon, Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard), Heimdall (Idris Elba) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). Even Hayley Atwell’s Peggy Carter gets a spin around the dancefloor. Somehow, though, Whedon manages to juggle a dozen balls at the same time and not miss a beat.

This time Whedon has chosen to go deeper and darker. As with Greek tragedy, the heroes – primarily Ironman/Tony Stark – have fatal flaws within them that set the story on the path to its destructive climax. While he doesn’t go as far as F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous line, “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy,” Whedon does take it a step further than the first Avengers where some of the responsibility falls on SHIELD with the power weapons they’ve horded. Here, the responsibility for Ultron rests squarely on the shoulders of the Avengers – Tony Stark for instigating the creation and the others for not stopping him. Yet Whedon also incorporates an excellent sequence where he develops the character of Hawkeye, who was the least fleshed-out of all the characters. It’s a moment of humanity that underlines the stakes for which the Avengers are playing.

With most action flicks, the rule is the movie is as good as its villain. Ultron is part-Voldemort, part-Silva (from Skyfall): nearly invulnerable and definitely a psychopath, but one who carries his evil with panache. James Spader’s vocal talents are perfectly matched to the character.

There is one discordant note with a previous Marvel Universe movie, and it underlines why after farming out Spiderman and the X-men to other studios (Sony and Fox respectively), Marvel’s now keeping its characters in house. Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s character Quicksilver is the same one played by Evan Peters in X-Men: Days of Future Past. But since Wolverine rewrote history in that movie, we’ll let it go.

Overall, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have been a rollercoaster that ran off the rails in spectacular fashion, but Joss Whedon manages to keep things under control and deliver the audience to the station with smiles on their faces after a thrilling ride. It’s not the best Marvel movie yet – Captain America: The Winter Soldier retains that distinction – but it’s up there with the best.

Lighter Metal

Summer officially started last Thursday with the midnight release of Iron Man 3, the first blockbuster of the season.  The third movie in a series, particularly for superheroes, can be deadly – see Spider-Man 3 and X-men: The Last Stand (or better yet, don’t see them) – but it can also be a satisfying climax of the trilogy such as The Dark Knight Rises.  Happily, Iron Man 3 is an example of the latter.

A good measure of the credit goes to Shane Black, who moves into the director’s chair in place of Jon Favreau (who still appears as Happy).  Black also co-wrote the movie with Drew Pearce.  This was not a safe choice.  Twenty-five years ago Black wrote the original script for Lethal Weapon, which gave him a “characters created by” credit for the next three movies. He made a million-dollar payday with his next script, the self-indulgent and poorly received The Last Boy Scout.  His third script was the mega-flop Last Action Hero, and he followed that up with the forgettable The Long Kiss Goodnight.  (While it wasn’t his fault, the film took the “Krakatoa East of Java” Award when it put Canada on the New York side of Niagara Falls.)

In 2005, Black tried for a comeback with the twisty comedic mystery Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, starring a finally clean Robert Downey Jr., who was looking for some redemption of his own.  It’s a good movie, but it didn’t light up the box office.  Except for one short film done under a pseudonym, Black hadn’t written or directed anything in 8 years prior to Iron Man 3.  Apparently, he was saving up the good stuff.

The movie starts with a voice over as Tony Stark (Downey) relates how the story began to an unseen person (stay to the end of the credits, when a tag reveals who he’s talking to). On New Year’s Eve 1999, Stark attends a party in Switzerland where he has three fateful meetings.  This is the pre-Afghanistan, lecherous Stark who thinks everything is a joke.  The first meeting completes the circuit with the first movie as he meets his future cave companion Yinsen (Shaun Tomb).  He also meets the beautiful cellular botanist Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and the physically-challenged scientist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce).  Stark cruelly blows off Killian to have a one-night stand with Hansen.  He’s gone when she awakens the next morning.

Fast forward to the present day.  Stark is not dealing well with the aftermath of the battle in New York City (chronicled in The Avengers) where he almost died.  He has a full-blown panic attack while out with Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and he can’t sleep.  His nocturnal hours are consumed with building a whole fleet of Iron Man suits.

A new threat arises in the form of an international terrorist called the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who’s conducting a series of terror bombings.  The now physically-perfect Killian has a meeting with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), whom he had known years earlier.  Killian and his assistant Savin (James Badge Dale) raise the suspicions of Happy, who follows Savin right into the middle of the newest Mandarin bombing.  Hansen reappears with a warning for Tony and Pepper about Killian, but the three of them are caught when the Mandarin stages an attack on Tony’s house.

Much of the appeal of the Iron Man series comes from Robert Downey Jr.’s acerbic and flawed Tony Stark. He can milk the comedy of the lines as he throws them away, yet he is also touchingly vulnerable, especially when it comes to Pepper Potts.  This time Paltrow gets more deeply involved in the physical action of the movie, and she handles it beautifully.

Guy Pearce is excellent as the suave, twisted Killian, who’s a worthy adversary for Iron Man.  Rebecca Hall builds on the work she did in The Town with the role of Hansen.  She has a face that pulls you in and holds your attention.  Black writes a much different version of The Mandarin from the character who battled Iron Man in the comics, and it’s a joy to watch Ben Kingsley act the role.

While the CGI effects are outstanding as always (the credits show it took a small army to create them), one scene later in the movie, done mostly with a professional skydiving team, shows there’s still a place for old school stunts.  Black shoots scenes so they keep the audience on the edge of their seats, yet will also throw in twists that keep them on their toes.  While it fully satisfies, there’s more of a sense of fun in this outing than in the previous movies.

Iron Man 3 posted the second strongest opening weekend ever, with nearly $175 million in domestic box office.  That’s also much stronger than the opening of both previous entries in the franchise.  While some of it is building momentum from the first two movies, it’s also a reward for the movie not playing it safe and giving us a retread of what’s been done before.  And that’s a reward for the audience.

Greater than the Sum of its Parts

Ever since the first mention of the Avenger Initiative, in the tag at the end of Iron Man, I’ve been anticipating seeing this movie.  Marvel was wise to fill in the backstory of the other main participants first, with Thor, Captain America, and the Edward Norton Hulk.  Each contained a short tease at the end of what was coming.  When I heard Joss Whedon had been chosen to write and direct the movie, my anticipation went up exponentially.  Whedon had rejuvenated the classic horror genre on TV with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel.  His next series, Firefly, was destroyed by Fox executives who didn’t understand it (much as Dollhouse was ruined by the same company).  Whedon did have a last laugh by directing his first movie, Serenity, based on Firefly.

The Avengers is Whedon’s second movie directing assignment, and he delivers one of the best superhero movies ever.  With Buffy, Whedon had deconstructed the horror genre.  While there is a strong element of Buffy’s irreverent humor, overall he plays it straight and delivers a slam-bang action movie that races forward at a breakneck pace.  It melds not only the superheroes but also several supporting characters from the previous movies.

At a special S.H.I.E.L.D. complex, Dr. Selvig (Stellan Skarsgaard) has been evaluating the Tesseract, a cube of unlimited power linked to the Norse gods.  Captain America had wrestled it away from The Red Skull and sent it into the sea 70 years earlier, only to have Nick Fury’s people recover it.  Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is called to the complex when the Tesseract starts an uncontrolled reaction.  It projects a wormhole through which Thor’s adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) reaches Earth.  Loki steals the Tesserat, puts Selvig and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) under his spell, and destroys the complex.  Fury and his assistants, Agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Hill (Cobie Smulders), barely escape the destruction.

Loki has made a pact with the Chitauri, an alien warrior race, to help him conquer the Earth in exchange for the Tesseract.  Fury decides to activate the Avenger Initiative.  He calls in Captain Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who’s still dealing with waking up in the modern world after years in suspended animation, as well as Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who’s in New York with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) for the opening of his new arc-reactor powered skyscraper.  Fury sends the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson) after “the big guy,” Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who’s working among the poor in India while trying to control his temper.

Loki appears in Germany where he kills an industrialist and takes a group of people hostage, insisting they bow down to him.  An old man refuses to submit, and Loki almost kills him, but Captain America arrives in the nick of time.  Iron Man also makes a timely entrance, and the two superheroes manage to restrain Loki.  While transporting him to the S.H.I.E.L.D. command center, they’re interrupted by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who has been sent by Odin to collect the Tesseract and return Loki to Ansgaard.

The movie has plenty of Whedon’s trademark wit, but the script never stops for long exposition.  What you do have are the prickly interactions of superheroes who are used to working alone.  Downey Jr. has the most fun, demonstrating why in Iron Man II Fury told him he wasn’t suitable (small pun) for the Avengers.  Evans has the more thankless job as the one who must lead the disparate force.  Hemsworth’s performance is a smooth flow from last year’s movie, blending the ego of a god with the humility he’d learned.  (Unfortunately, Natalie Portman only appears in a photograph.)  After performances by Eric Bana and Edward Norton in previous movies, Mark Ruffalo steps into the Bruce Banner role and puts his own mark on it.  Even with these big name characters to handle, Whedon doesn’t short change Renner or Johannson, fleshing out their backstories.  Johannson’s first appearance is one of the more awesome scenes in the movie.

That said, the movie doesn’t have a shortage of awesome scenes.  The battles are always multi-dimensional and complex, but work like a Swiss watch with perfect timing.  The key is that Whedon understands each of these individual characters and manages to blend them into a unit not only physically but also psychologically.

Joss Whedon

Nowhere is his sure hand shown clearer than in how he handles the Incredible Hulk.  In the past ten years, the Hulk has had not just one but two movies, both of which were misfires.  Rather than harken back to those movies, Whedon goes farther back.  This Hulk is closer to the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferrigno TV series that ran between 1978 and 1982.  When the Hulk finally appears, he’s everything you’d hope for in a not-so-lean, green fighting machine.  The payoff comes when Captain America sets out a plan of attack in the final battle, giving everyone specific assignments, then turns to the Hulk and says, “Hulk?  Smash.”  And the Hulk is smashing.  (The Hulk’s voice is actually an amalgam of Ruffalo’s voice with four other people, one of whom was Lou Ferrigno.)

Synergy is often defined as the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  While each of these character’s previous movies have been from very to extremely successful (with the exception of the two Hulks), putting them all together under the direction of Whedon has sent this movie into the stratosphere.  It’s likely that it will break into the Billion Dollar Movie club within a couple of weeks. The wonderful thing is, it will do it because it is just so darn good!

Be aware when you see it, there are not just one but two tags – one midway through the credits, the other at the end.  The first sets the scene for the sequel, while the second is a lovely piece of drollery.

A Shadow of Its Former Self

Guy Ritchie scored the biggest success of his career with 2009’s Sherlock Holmes.  The casting of Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes was questioned before the movie was released, but it proved to be a bit of genius.  The movie also was strengthened by Jude Law’s Dr. Watson.  The portrayal, with energy and virility, was close to the original books, and miles away from the comedic fuddy-duddy that Nigel Bruce portrayed to Basil Rathbone’s Holmes in the 1940’s series of Holmes movies.

Now Ritchie has released the sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  The results are mixed.

In 1891, a series of bombings and assassinations have pushed Europe to the brink of war.  Holmes sees behind the attacks the hand of the noted intellectual and secret crime lord, Professor Moriarty (Jared Harris).  He follows Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams), his paramour from the first film, as she retrieves a note for Moriarty.  The payoff to the seller turns out to be a bomb, but Holmes quickly intervenes to prevent its explosion in a room full of people.  He can’t save the seller, though.  Holmes finds the man just outside the building, felled by a poison dart.  Adler must face Moriarty’s wrath when she loses the note to Holmes.

Watson’s wedding to Mary (Kelly Reilly) is fast approaching.  Holmes, as the best man, is in charge of Watson’s stag party.  Instead of the standard gathering of friends, he drags Watson along with his brother, Mycroft Holmes (Stephen Fry), to check out a lead from the letter at a cutthroat bar.  He saves a gypsy fortune teller, Madame Simza Heron (Noomi Rapace, the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo from the original Swedish-language film), from a Cossack assassin.  Holmes does manage to get Watson to the church on time (barely) for his wedding.

Holmes confronts Moriarty in his university office.  In the cat-and-mouse interview, Moriarty reveals Adler’s fate and that he has marked Watson and Mary for death.  Holmes secretly boards the train that the couple is taking to their honeymoon destination.  After getting Mary out of the line of fire, he and Watson defeat a platoon of soldiers sent to murder the couple.  Then the two friends are off to the continent to discover Moriarty’s plans and stop him from starting a World War.

The original movie did a better job of capturing the brilliant deductive skills of Holmes, especially when faced with the seemingly demonic killings engineered by Mark Strong’s Lord Blackwood.  Holmes’ logical explanations for what appears amazing are just like reading Conan Doyle’s original stories.  In the new movie, though, the detecting is secondary to physical fights and gunplay.  Ritchie overuses the “mental preparation for a fight” visual that was an effective showpiece when used once in the original movie.  That said, Ritchie does know how to film an exciting action scene.  A sequence where Holmes, Watson and Sim are escaping through a forest has thrilling gunplay and slow-motion choreography that makes it a ballet for bullets.  Near the end of the movie Holmes does employ his deductive skills to unmask an assassin, and that scene is intellectually thrilling.

As with the first movie, Downey and Law are delightful to watch in their roles.  Their sharp interplay is one of the best parts of the series.  Noomi Rapace, though, is under-utilized as Madam Sim.  The first sequence she appears in gives you a taste of what Rapace can do, but after that she’s relegated to being an obvious device to move the plot along rather than an integral player on the team.  Harris plays Moriarty in a frost-cold, Criminal Mastermind 101 way.  You don’t feel the personal menace that you did from Lord Blackwood in the first movie.  Rachel McAdams and Kelly Reilly have only short (though worthwhile) scenes.  Fry was an inspired choice to play Mycroft, though of all the actors in the film, he’s the only one with a nude scene

While the movie as a whole is far removed from the original Holmes stories, in other ways it’s wonderfully faithful.  Colonel Moran (Paul Anderson), Moriarty’s sharpshooting lieutenant, does appear in “The Empty House,” the opening story in Conan Doyle’s The Return of Sherlock Holmes.  You also have the climatic fight at Reichenbach Falls, as it was in “The Final Problem,” though it plays out much differently.

While the movie has its fun parts, on the whole you’ll find yourself wishing it kept closer to the feel of the first film.  Instead of surpassing the original, like The Bourne Supremacy or The Godfather Part II, you have Jaws II, a serviceable sequel but not as good as the original.