Monday, 23 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 3 - Spider-Man Homecoming (2017)

Looking at that poster, you would be forgiven for thinking that Spider-Man Homecoming was actually Iron Man 3.5. In the same way that Civil War was potentially Avengers 2.5.
Thankfully, this was purely marketing and the focus is aimed straight at Peter Parker with Tony Stark appearing in a strictly advisorly capacity (either remotely or in person).
While there was a huge amount of excitement when it was announced that Sony and Marvel Studios had made a deal to have the character appear in the MCU, fans questioned whether we needed to see *another* version of Spider-Man so soon after Andrew Garfield's (less than) Amazing Spider-Man.
Within 30 seconds of Civil War, Tom Holland proved that he was the Peter Parker/Spider-Man we didn't realise we needed until that moment. What a difference it made to see an actual teenager play the character who is an awkward, excitable teenager rather than an (admittedly talented) guy in his late-twenties/early thirties.
Homecoming builds on those solid foundations and continues to focus on Peter coming to term with his powers and desire to join the Avengers, all while trying to balance the pressures of high school. Although the Homecoming title can refer to high school and Spidey returning to where he belongs in the MCU.
We can gloss over the fact that Peter and May's apartment seems to change layout and decoration in the week between Civil War and the start of Homecoming because it is so assured in the rest of its storytelling.
Kevin Feige and director Jon Waits know that those watching the Marvel Cinematic Universe have probably already seen the five previous Spider-Man films. (On a side note, let's not forget that in the 16 years we have had three different actors play Spidey over seven films, we only had Hugh Jackman as Wolverine across nine films!)
So they wisely decided that we don't need to see another origin story of how Peter got his powers (indeed it was brushed off by Tony in Civil War as something he didn't need to hear) and we don't need to see the death of Uncle Ben again...

What they do manage to do is subvert certain aspects of what we expect to see. For example, "hot" Aunt May played by Marisa Tomei; no "with great power comes great responsibility" speech from surrogate father figure Tony Stark; training sequences not with his natural abilities but with Stark tech instead such as the "training wheels" program.
The film provides its great share of action sequences, including that incredible vertigo-inducing shot of Spidey standing atop the Washington monument. *Notice how MCU Spidey is not afraid to step outside of New York if duty calls? Makes him more than just your "friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man"*
There is also the Staten Island Ferry set piece that simultaneously harks back to Spider-Man 2's train rescue and betters it (possibly because it doesn't feature Tobey Maguire's constipated face).
Where this film, and the other previous sixteen films by Marvel Studios, raise the bar for the genre and connect with audiences is in character. It is the performances, the writing and development over the ten years that causing such a deep connection that will pay off in Infinity War.
It is nice to see a vulnerable side to a superhero and the moment when Peter cries out when being crushed by rubble gets you, what is the phrase the kids use, "right in the feels". He also has conflicted emotions regarding the villain of the piece, Michael Keaton's Vulture.
It was a surprise to see Keaton in a Marvel movie given his past as Batman but he is one of the MCU's best villains... even if it does conjure up comparisons to his other "superhero" outing Birdman.
Adrian Toomes, screwed over by the system, justifies what he is doing because it helps him provide for his family. Plus Robin Hood-style, he is only stealing from the rich and powerful. He has had no issues with the Avengers as they have bigger fish to fry but then some kid in a onesie starts messing with his business. Spider-Man and the Vulture are put on a collision course that comes to a head in one of the most surprising, jaw-dropping moments in the MCU and 2017 when Peter knocks on the door of his date Liz's house only for him (and the audience) to find out that Toomes is her father.
The following scene in the car where Keaton figures out Parker's secret and proceeds to thank him for saving his daughter's life but threaten to kill him if he gets in his way again is perfectly suited to Keaton who can switch from charming to chilling in an instant.
Thankfully unlike the original Spider-Man and other MCU movies, this iteration of the character does not see the villain killed off at the end of the film which should hopefully allow for a more organic development of the Sinister Six and a welcome return for Vulture.
As for how Sony's Venom starring Tom Hardy will fit into all this? That's anyone's guess!
The future for Spider-Man and Tom Holland is very bright with a nice allusion at the end of the film to the Civil War comic storyline where Iron Man introduces Spidey to the world as the Iron Spider. Something we definitely will see very soon in Infinity War. Although one does worry for Peter. If Tony Stark does die at the hands of Thanos, how will Parker cope losing a third father figure in his lifetime?!

Infinity Stone counter = 5

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 3 - Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

Controversial opinion it may be but you know what? I'll just come out and say it.
Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2 is better than Guardians Of The Galaxy.
While it might not have the shock and surprise factor of the original (in that "Wow, this is actually really good"), Vol. 2 is a much richer, deeper, more emotional film that's true focus is not some scheme to wipe out all life in the universe (well it slightly is).
The film begins the most enjoyable title sequence of any Marvel movie as Baby Groot dances to ELO's Mr Blue Sky and the Guardians battle a giant space monster behind him. Actually come to think about, it, is it the only Marvel title sequence? They don't usually have any credits until the end of the film do they?
Anyway, the fight to protect some Anthrax batteries for the Sovereign race is merely a Macguffin to lead to the real story. Similar to an episode of Family Guy where the first ten minutes of the episode are just set up for another story.
And that story is, as Vin Diesel mentions every ten minutes or so in all of the Fast & Furious movies, "Family".
It is about the relationships between a father and a son, a surrogate father and a son and between two "sisters".
Following on from the events of Vol. 1 where Star Lord Peter Quill discovered that his father was not of Earth, his father Ego The Living Planet comes looking for his son after hearing of a human who "held an infinity stone in his hand and didn't die".
The face of the Living Planet takes the form of the "rugged good looks" of Kurt Russell which harks back to the Eighties as he was one of the decades most iconic heroes in the likes of The Thing, Escape From New York and Big Trouble In Little China and he brings all of that swagger and charisma to the role and is a perfect fit for Peter's father.
Having found him, Ego wants to show Peter his true potential as part-Celestial being. He takes Peter, Gamora and Drax off to his planet, leaving Rocket to repair their ship and babysit Groot and Nebula. But he'll have problems of his own when the Ravagers return with Yondu looking for payback.
Vol. 2 plays out a bit like a Greatest Hits mix tape compiled by Peter's Mom.
On the A side, if you liked the 80s references from the first film, don't worry there are plenty more here. Enjoy the surprise MVP of Vol. 1 Drax the Destroyer? He gets more time to shine and develop in this one. And once again, Gunn has picked the perfect song list to go with the story. Who doesn't spend the next two days after seeing this singing Brandy?
Flip the tape over to the B side however and as expressed earlier, the film is a very deep, emotional family tale.
Gamora and Nebula attempt to work through their issues by doing what any sisters would do. Try to kill each other of course! This manifests in an unexpected but wonderful North by Northwest homage that leads into a proper scrap with some excellent work from Karen Gillan, relishing the increased screen time.
Of course, the main plot is Chris Pratt working through his daddy issues. Early on he tells Gamora he wished he could have played catch with his dad and told the kids at school his real father was David Hasselhoff and both of these references come back later on in surprising ways. When Ego's ultimate plan for Peter is unveiled, it is up to Yondu to float in Mary Poppins style to help save the day.
If Batista was Vol. 1's MVP, then Michael Rooker is certainly the MVP of Vol. 2. He has worked with James Gunn on a number of projects but he delivers his finest work with this performance.
I was not expecting the climax of the film to have the emotional sucker punch that it did.
*Spoilers ahead*
From the moment Yondu sacrifices himself to save Peter with the line "He may of been your father boy, but he wasn't your daddy", to Peter's realisation that he has lost two father figures, to the Ravager funeral...

The new line up of the Guardians confirmed at the end of the film, adding Mantis and a now surly, teenage Groot, there is nothing but excitement to see how they interact with "Earth's mightiest heroes" as all the different plot threads come together for Infinity War.

Infinity Stone counter = 5

Saturday, 21 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 3 - Doctor Strange (2016)

Things to take quantum leap forward in the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to Doctor Strange. We had previously seen travels into the Quantum Realm in Ant-Man and this film would take that to the max with multiple mystical dimensions along with a hint of magic. Or is it science? As Thor would say "I come from a world where they are one and the same."
Strange was mentioned in passing during The Winter Soldier but it took another four films before he would make an appearance. Why? It could be argued that his powers were too great to be involved in the Civil War fight as he could have easily influenced the final outcome with a quick spin on the Eye of Agamotto.
Instead, Mister Doctor is given an origin story set some time during the increasingly confused MCU timeline (but one that ends synced up to the events in Thor Ragnarok).
In terms of plot, this is the most straightforward origin tale that Marvel has done since the original Iron Man.
Benedict Cumberbatch is well cast as the pompous, over-opinionated surgeon and he plays it as though he is doing an impression of Hugh Laurie doing his House accent. Following an accident in which he loses the use of his hands, he travels to Nepal in search of answers on how to heal himself and that is where he finds Kamar-Taj and the Ancient One (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton).
One of the first things that is noticeable about the film is the cast list. Cumberbatch, Swinton, Ejifor, Mikkelsen, McAdams. It reads more like an Oscar contender than a superhero blockbuster and it is to Marvel's credit that they are now in a position to attract this calibre of talent for lead and supporting roles.
So while the plot might be straightforward, the visuals are anything but. Twisty, turny and dizzying to the point that it feels like if Inception had labyrinthitis, they are unique within the MCU and make for a welcome (and by this point needed) change to the formula). Beyond Strange's first trippy, er, trip into the Quantum realm that borders on the horrific, it is the Manhattan sequence that is the stand out.
Thankfully, the mirror realm allows the wizards to fight without causing any destruction or death to the people of New York (goodness knows they've been through enough!).
And it was nice to see a novel twist on the third act climax with having Strange stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop being killed over and over again by the big bad Dormmamu until he agrees to bargain. Was a nice change to having the hero solve the problem with their fists.

Infinity Stone counter = 5 (Time Stone)

Friday, 20 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 3 - Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Phase 3 kicked off in style with the stealth Avengers film Captain America: Civil War aka Avengers 2.5.
Admittedly there were a few worries going into the film that this was simply going to be an Avengers ensemble film rather than a Captain America film. The Russo brothers however managed to find a way to distil the story about the breakdown of the Avengers to actually further Steve Rogers' story by making the Jenga piece that threatens to topple the whole be James Sebastian Barnes aka The Winter Soldier.
Inspired by Mark Millar's game-changing comic series that crossed over many of Marvel's titles at the time, heavily influencing future storylines, it focused on the issue of a Superhero registration act that would force heroes to reveal their secret identities and become government employees.
As this was not an issue in the MCU due to the fact that most of the heroes were not hiding their identities, the storyline had to be adapted to fit in with the movie universe.
Following the events of Age of Ultron, the Avengers find themselves subjected to legislation called the Sokovia Accords. This would make them answerable to the United Nations, something that Tony agrees with but Steve refuses to sign. The battle lines are drawn between the Avengers as everyone has a different opinion on whether or not it is a good thing. Something which in particular affects Scarlet Witch and Vision's relationship which sets things up nicely for further exploration in Infinity War.
Just as the Accords are due to be passed, Bucky Barnes bombs the UN causing the death of Wakanda's King T'Chakka. This introduces audiences to the character of Black Panther in the form of his son Prince T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman). He desires revenge and goes after Barnes but Rogers sets out to protect his friend, unwilling to believe he was behind the bombing.
Upon his capture, which sees the reintroduction of Steve Rogers' beard... no, not the one in Infinity War, Sharon Carter of course, the Winter Soldier is released by a man called Zemo (Bruhl) using a HYDRA mind control technique.
In order to solve the mystery and bring his friend back, Captain America cuts ties with the Avengers, putting him on a collision course with Stark. Something that will cause all the heroes to pick a side and lead to the MCU's most iconic and fantastic scene: the Superhero Smackdown.
This was the scene that Marvel fans had dreamed of ever since Nick Fury turned up at the end of Iron Man. The chance to find out the answers to the geeky questions like "who would win in a fight? Falcon or War Machine? Ant-Man or Spider-Man?
Yes, just one of the reasons that Civil War is so good is that it is the film that brought Spider-Man into the MCU and boy does he make a great first impression. Tom Holland is perfect as the young teenage Peter Parker and he gets some wonderful moments, particularly with Cap, Falcon and Bucky.
Every character gets their moment to shine but it is Paul Rudd's Ant-Man who steals the show here with his transformation into Giant Man. When Ant-Man was first released I thought that he would transform when returning from the Quantum Realm and burst through the house but they wisely saved it for this and it was completely worth it.
It isn't just the fight at the airport but every action sequence that cemented the Russo brothers as the kings of the Marvel castle. Even going so far as to take a page out of the Marvel TV series playbook and include a fight in a corridor and stairwell.
Ultimately, the film comes down to Cap vs Iron Man as the scheme that Zemo has been plotting turns out to be a more twisted revenge tale than Oldboy as it is revealed that Barnes was the one responsible for killing Stark's parents. This results in the most emotional fight so far (even more so than Thor vs Loki) and one that puts the final nail in the coffin of the Avengers as Steve chooses Bucky over Tony "I'm sorry, Tony but he's my friend", "So was I".
Will we see the old team back together in Infinity War, only time will tell.

Fun fact: Hawkeye calls Tony "The Futurist" which is the name of the album that Robert Downey Jr released in 2004.

Infinity Stone counter = 4

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Ant-Man (2015)

The greatest "What If?" in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Out there in the Quantum Realm somewhere there is a version of the MCU that still features an Ant-Man that was directed by Edgar Wright.
Fans of the Cornetto Trilogy were feeling rather negative towards the film before it came out, saying that this was finally going to be Marvel's first genuine misstep and flop but...
Trust in Feige and the MCU because in spite of all the troubles and issues going into the production, the final result is actually a very fun and enjoyable Marvel film, albeit it on a smaller scale than Age of Ultron (pun intended) and the perfect palette cleanser.
Paul Rudd is a fantastic choice for Scott Lang, who is drawn into a scheme to stop the original Ant-Man Hank Pym's protege from recreating the technology. He perfectly captures the wide-eyed cynicism to the ridiculousness of the entire situation and it helps draw the audience into this world.
It certainly plays to Rudd's strengths, playing up the humour "Baskin Robbins always find out" and he is given a terrific sidekick to spark off in Michael Pena's Luis with his fantastic flashback explanations.
NB: Marvel, please release the Comic-Con video of Pena explaining the entire MCU history to Michelle Pfieffer before Infinity War comes out!
While Pym has handpicked Scott Lang to be the one to take on the mantle (or should that be Antle) of Ant-Man, this puts Scott at loggerheads with Hank's daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) who believes she is the worthy successor but at odds with her father because of a past family tragedy that will drive the narrative forward in the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
With Marvel keen to put a different spin on each of their movies, this one can definitely be described as a heist movie with a lot of time spent on Lang training for the job (including the contractual Marvel shot of Rudd with his top off to prove that he has worked out enough to have a six-pack) and putting the plan into action.
Peyton Reed does a good job of delivering the action but there are still moments in the film that still feel like Wright (he retained a screenplay credit) such as the train fight sequence at the end with a cameo from Thomas The Tank Engine.
However if there is one person who deserves a huge amount of credit for the success of Phase 2 and 3 in the MCU, it is the person responsible for the visual effects that de-aged Michael Douglas in the opening scene as the result is astonishing (and would be repeated in Civil War and Guardians Vol. 2). It is creepily realistic and they deserve a pay rise!

Also, it doesn't get mentioned a lot but one would argue that Ant-Man features that saddest death in the MCU outside of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2!

Infinity Stone counter = 4

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Avengers: The Age Of Ultron (2015)

You know what? Avengers Age of Ultron gets a bit of an unfairly bad rep.
A lot of that comes from Joss Whedon's split from the Marvel Cinematic Universe following the release of the film where it was revealed that he had not enjoyed the process this time round, feeling that the wider needs of the Universe were getting in the way of telling the story. It also caused him to leave Twitter when fans started hating on him for certain character choices he made (*cough* Natasha and Bruce *cough*).
It is certainly not a perfect film. For one thing it is Avengers: Age of Product Placement with featured shots of Under Armour clothing, Beats headphones, Reebok trainers and, randomly, Gillette shaving cream!
What Ultron does do well is it captures the fun and excitement of having a group of superheroes working together and the wonderful chemistry established by the group of actors who have now been working together for a number of years.
It picks up where it left off, kickstarting the film with an action sequence that features Earth's mightiest heroes in a slow mo one shot again that says "we're hitting the ground running". It also contains the wonderful "language" moment.
There is the party scene where all the Avengers (except Black Widow) attempt to pick up Thor's hammer. The look on Hemsworth's face when Cap makes it wobble ever so slightly is priceless. It also has a wonderful pay off later in the film with Vision.
One of the major criticism's from fans was the middle section where they lay low at Hawkeye's family farm but it allows the movie a chance to breathe and it is a nice, welcome character development for Renner's Clint Barton who spent most of the first film under the mind control of Loki.
Given Whedon's history for killing off characters, it pulls the perfect bait-and-switch building up "one last job", "baby on the way" sacrifice for the hero that doesn't end the way you think.
It also gives him a wonderful moment with Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch where he delivers a pep talk about becoming an Avenger and how ridiculous it all is that he is just a guy with "a bow and arrow".
It is wonderful to finally see the MCU get another female superhero to add to the mix in the form of Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (No, Maria Hill does not count!). Olsen is perfect in the role that will develop over the next phase as she struggles to deal with her enormous power and relationship to Vision, the child of Ultron.
Voiced perfectly by James Spader, Ultron is the dark mirror image of Tony Stark. Born out of a need to protect the Earth from attack but ultimately deciding the easiest way to do that is destroy humanity, he is the Monster to Stark's Doctor Frankenstein.
On reflection, now that Phase 3 is nearly complete, Age of Ultron actually fits in a lot better to the overall arching storyline. The final battle in Sokovia has huge repercussions for the group that leads into Civil War, Andy Serkis's delightfully wacky Ulysses Klaue as a plot device to introduce the notion of Wakanda (but worth it for his Cuttlefish speech) and Thor's subplot about going for a dream bath now makes a lot more sense given the events of Thor Ragnarok for example. Again it is about finding that balance between being a complete one shot film versus paving the road to Infinity War but if people were to talk a walk back down this path, they will find much more to enjoy second time around.

Infinity Stone counter = 4

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

Let's admit it. This shouldn't have worked. A cosmic comedy adventure featuring D-list Marvel characters that included a talking raccoon and a walking tree that could only say three words?
And at a time when D.C. were struggling to put together a Batman vs Superman movie.
But Marvel Studios once again proved why they are the best in the business and knocked it out of the park with Guardians Of The Galaxy. Created a smash hit movie franchise. Turned Chris Pratt into a A-List superstar and got a compilation soundtrack to become one of the biggest selling albums of the year and nominated for a Grammy!
It might have seemed like a risk but GotG was actually an essential building block in the MCU as it was the first film to directly deal with the Infinity Stones which Thanos will ultimately look to finally add to his gauntlet after 6 years of sitting on his arse!
We get the Power Stone in the Orb as the "Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon kinda vibe" MacGuffin for the movie and Benicio Del Toro's Collector to provide the back story to the gems.
The central plot is so-so, with the group moving from one planet to the next to retrieve the orb and stop the bland, generic bad guy's evil schemes which result in Phase 2's standard Act 3 of having very large things falling from the sky into over-populated urban areas (Helicarriers in Winter Soldier, Dark Elven ships in Thor The Dark World, Sokovia in Ultron).
What makes the film works in spite of any flaws is the casting, chemistry and "banter" of the Guardians.
Pratt *IS* Peter Quill from the moment he starts dancing around to Come And Get And Your Love in a giant space cave. It tells you everything you need to know about the character without him having to say a word but when he does he is hilarious. Confusing the likes of Gamora and Drax with his Eighties references to mighty heroes such as Kevin Bacon for example.
Despite initial misgivings over the casting of Bradley Cooper, he does an excellent job as Rocket Raccoon and Diesel (who has previous form as The Iron Giant) manages to do so much with just three words. Who knew there were so many different ways you could say "I am Groot"?
The biggest revelation here however was Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer. Best known for being from WWE, this was his first real film role and while there were the usual questions over whether he would be a Hulk Hogan or a Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, he actually steals the entire film with his remarkable comic timing.
Overall, there is a looseness and sense of fun and wonder about the film that simultaneously expands the MCU into the wider cosmic universe but also keeps it grounded and real thanks to the soundtrack that features well known (and soon to be well known) songs from the Seventies and Eighties, all of which are perfectly used.
Finally, on this rewatch, despite pouring over every frame, sadly no closer to discovering James Gunn's final hidden Easter Egg. Next time A'Holes!

Infinity Stone counter = 4 (Power Stone, Reality Stone, Space Stone, Mind Stone)