“Black Panther”

As excited as I am for Infinity War in May, I have a feeling it’s not going to top Black Panther. This is the best MCU film since Civil War.

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is crowned king of Wakanda a week after his father’s death in Civil War. He then faces moral dilemmas when a radical terrorist named Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) appears and challenges T’Challa for the throne.

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler (the great Creed) delivers an incredible MCU installment with Black Panther. Instead of focusing on gadgets, fight scenes, origin stories, or leading up to another MCU movie, Coogler focuses on the world building and politics of Wakanda.

Wakanda is a majestic city with advanced technology and vibrant costumes. The political system is progressive yet libertarian, considering Wakanda’s leaders want to remain separate from the rest of the world. Killmonger’s authoritarian ideal clashing with T’Challa’s libertarian views add a refreshingly subtle political depth.

Boseman and Jordan both deliver charismatic and multi-layered performances. Boseman portrays T’Challa as the confident good guy who becomes disillusioned when he learns dark secrets about Wakanda while Jordan plays Killmonger as a vengeful-yet-sympathetic villain. When they clash, it’s a battle of pride, anger, legacy, and honor.

The supporting cast also has dynamic characters with Danai Guira (The Walking Dead) as T’Challa’s fiercely loyal bodyguard Okoye who puts Wakanda before friendships, Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) as T’Challa’s disillusioned best friend, and Letitia Wright (Black Mirror) as T’Challa’s genius younger sister Shuri. Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman also reprise their roles from previous MCU films as terrorist Ulysses Klaue and Agent Ross respectively in fun supporting roles.

Coogler once again directs a spectacular character driven action film. As much as I loved his one-shot casino fight and the brutal hand-to-hand combat scenes where T’Challa defends his throne, I was more intrigued with his visual storytelling. The scenes with T’Challa and Killmonger having visions of their past and the afterlife heighten their ambitions and their flaws. They’re both equally capable of being either good or bad men, so when they come face-to-face, it’s hard to pick a side.

I’m a big comic book fan, but I put film criticism first. Black Panther is one of the few MCU movies I consider flawless. It’s heartfelt, realized, kinetic, and inspiring.

Grade: A+

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“Justice League”

The DCEU is like a kid riding a bike; they crash on the first couple of rides, but slowly get better with practice. They’ve improved with Justice League.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) learn of a new CG-villain named Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who plots world domination. Their solution – recruit Aquaman (Jason Mamoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), and The Flash (Ezra Miller) and resurrect Superman (Henry Cavill) from the dead to help them stop the new baddy.

I’m a fan of comic book movies, but I also have a love-hate relationship with Zack Snyder. I love his earlier work (Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen particularly), but his DCEU films are huge misfires. Thankfully, Justice League is an improvement. It’s a B-superhero movie that’s just lighthearted fun. I admire that Snyder and Joss Whedon (who did extensive rewrites and post-production work) treated Justice League as a lighthearted superhero flick.

There are a few occasional dark moments with the best being a brooding opening credits sequence. It uses a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” to show how hopeless the world has become without Superman. Part from that, Justice League relies on one-liners and witty banter to make the movie fun. Even Batman makes jokes, which is shocking!

The cast has great chemistry and each actor does their character justice. Mamoa plays Aquaman as a debauched rockstar, Miller plays The Flash as an antisocial nerd, and Fisher portrays Cyborg as a man torn between his humanity and robotics.

Affleck and Gadot are once again great as Batman and Wonder Woman; they both sell their characters’ conflicts and opposing views of battling Steppenwolf. Steppenwolf is where the movie suffers. There’s no substance or originality with Steppenwolf and even with the underrated Hinds playing him, I wasn’t sold. Then again, does anyone ever watch a superhero ensemble movie for the villain?

The plot is a standard save-the-world formula we’ve seen done a thousand times. However, the final act is worth the ticket admission alone, thanks to Snyder and Whedon’s portrayal of Superman. He’s not recklessly destroying cities or brooding; he’s smiling and saving villages from destruction.

The DCEU sounds like it’s on its last leg, but I’m willing to keep going back since the movies are getting better.

Grade: B

 

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Given how the kinetic and talented Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) directed Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it’s no wonder he doesn’t like doing sequels.

Set a year after Eggsy (Taron Egerton) thwarted the apocalypse in The Secret Service, a new diabolical villain named Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) surfaces with a plot to legalize drugs. Poppy destroys the Kingsman headquarters and kills several agents, forcing Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) to partner with the Statesman, their American counterpart. They also find Harry (Colin Firth) alive, who joins them on their mission.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle was one of my most anticipated movies since I was a big fan of its predecessor and Vaughn stayed committed to the sequel. While The Golden Circle has its moments, Vaughn still commits the biggest sequel sin: he tries too hard to top the first one. The Secret Service is a thrilling spy movie tribute that was an even balance of hardcore violence, political satire, and heart. The Golden Circle has some of its predecessor’s heart and satirical elements, but disappointingly focuses on violence and juvenile humor.

The action is undeniably impressive in The Golden Circle and Vaughn wastes no time throwing us in the middle of it. The opening car chase/fist fight in Eggsy’s cab is a fun, frenetic action sequence; the climactic gun fight at Poppy’s headquarters is a gadget-filled fact-paced spectacle reminiscent of the infamous church scene in The Secret Service (not as good, though).

There were complaints about the level of violence in The Secret Service, but I personally felt the gore was used sparingly and had greater impact; the film still focused on interrogation, covert ops, and surveillance with action thrown in the middle. The Golden Circle uses violence nonstop and there’s almost no spy sequences, save for one that’s a prolonged, offensive rape joke.

It’s great seeing Firth back as Harry; he’s once again a fun, competent action hero. Watching Harry struggle with coordination made his sequences exciting to watch. Egerton is once again likable as the underdog Eggsy. Some viewers will hate that the film focuses on his relationship, but I felt it was refreshing since Eggsy was growing up.

Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, Julianne Moore is a great blend of scary and funny as Poppy. Her plot to control drug distribution is a sharp political commentary on the War on Drugs.

I could have done without most of the Statesman characters. Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Channing Tatum play the American agents, but they’re only on screen for a few minutes each. If you saw the trailers, you saw all of their scenes. On the other hand, the great Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martel from Game of Thrones) is a blast as rogue Statesman, Whiskey.

The Golden Circle excels when it focuses on the Kingsman and their character arcs. Had Vaughn just focused on Harry and Eggsy and kept the new characters and their screen time to a minimum, The Golden Circle could have been as good as its predecessor.

Grade: C+

“Atomic Blonde”

If any movie hasn’t already claimed action sequence of the year, I think David Leitch’s (“John Wick,” the upcoming “Deadpool” sequel) spy thriller “Atomic Blonde” will. A six-minute-long shot featuring a barbaric fist fight, shootout, and car chase has to be worthy, right?

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is called to Berlin to obtain a mysterious list. Like most spy movies, this list contains information on undercover agents. She has a buddy cop dynamic with a debauched rock star-like operative, David Percival (James McAvoy) and the two race against time to find the list.

“Atomic Blonde” excels in genre splicing. It has the wide frames, slow pace, and convoluted narrative you’d find in a spy thriller, as well as the neon visuals, brutal violence, and cynical anti-hero found in Neo-Noir. Leitch is somewhat unrestrained in his direction, but “Atomic Blonde” is a blast regardless.

The neon visuals suit the film well due to its setting. “Atomic Blonde” takes place near the end of the Cold War during the collapse of the Berlin Wall, so there’s a strong 80’s aesthetic. Each song is used appropriately (New Order’s “Blue Monday” and George Michael’s “Father Figure”) and we get a brief history lesson on East Berlin. We don’t often see Berlin Wall-related movies, so it’s a refreshing change of setting.

Theron and McAvoy  both deliver fun-yet-committed performances. Between Theron’s stuntwork, dialect, English accent, and expressive moments of silence, she’s the perfect action heroine. Between McAvoy’s charisma, line delivery, and sense of humor, he steals nearly every scene from Theron.

I mentioned “Atomic Blonde” is convoluted and I’m not kidding. By the end, my friend and I were both struggling to figure out the twist ending. Does a spy movie with a cliched list plot need to be this difficult? As I’ve said in past reviews, a confusing ending is enough to warrant a sequel. “Atomic Blonde” is based on a comic book, so it’s bound to happen.

Grade: B

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

I’m pretty sure after watching Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” that Dane DeHaan is the 2010’s Keanu Reeves. But no one can replace Keanu Reeves!

Set in the distant future, the International Space Station has evolved into an extraordinary intergalactic city called Alpha. It’s home to millions of species and called the city of a thousand planets. When secret agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge) are called to Alpha, they uncover a secret that puts Alpha and a mysterious species in grave danger.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is the closest we’ll get to a “Fifth Element” sequel since both are quirky sci-fi adventures. Besson is once again kinetic, imaginative, and ambitious; unfortunately, “Thousand Planets” is more on par with the Wachowskis’ 2015 failure, “Jupiter Ascending.”

For a film about space-and-time-traveling agents that encounter various alien species and criminals, Besson’s content focusing on Valerian and Laureline’s awkward romance. It’s not cute, charming, or funny; it’s plain irritating. We spend more time watching Valerian propose to Laureline than we do learning about their agency or their characters.

DeHaan and Delevinge are both miscast in their respective roles. DeHaan spends the movie practicing his best Keanu Reeves impression while Delevinge delivers every line with little-to-no enthusiasm. Their chemistry is nonexistent. Furthermore, the movie is based on a comic called “Valerian and Laureline.” Why is it Laureline is hardly involved in the action and is constantly a damsel-in-distress?

Besson has some innovative sequences, including one that blends “TRON”-style visuals into a 1st-person POV shootout. “Valerian” is a dumb practice of style-over-substance with meta references to Besson’s previous films (keep your ear open for a “Taken” reference). I admire Besson’s ambition, but he should focus on storytelling that isn’t overstuffed with sexism and exposition.

Grade: D+

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man…. Spider-Man…. Does what “The Amazing Spider-Man” can’t! That’s right, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a return to form for the iconic Marvel character.

The self-aware titled “Spider-Man: Homecoming” takes place eight months after Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was introduced in “Civil War.” Since then, he’s hungry for more action. He’s flaking on his friends and beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he’s dropped out of various clubs, and he’s beyond high school.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes on a father-figure role to Peter and wants him to be patient and focus on being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Peter ignores his advice when he crosses paths with a heavily armed thief called The Vulture (Michael Keaton); their battles cause Peter to learn some valuable lessons the hard way.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a lighthearted and fun MCU movie that’s more a coming-of-age tale than standard origin story. Director Jon Watts (the solid B-movie “Cop Car”) gives Spidey the John Hughes treatment. Peter loves being Spider-Man, but often has to choose between his superhero addiction and being a kid. This sets up some comedic and dramatic moments for Peter.

The 21-year-old Holland does an amazing job playing Peter. He isn’t brooding like Maguire or arrogant like Garfield; he perfectly captures the angst, excitement, ambition, and recklessness of being a teen. Keaton and Downey both are great in their respective supporting roles. Keaton makes a menacing-albeit-sympathetic villain while Downey portrays Stark in a more humanized fashion.

The Vulture and Stark play important roles in teaching the naïve Parker the harsh ways of the world and are perfect foils to each other, despite no screen time together. “Homecoming” excels in fleshing out each character and making them grounded and empathetic. Though I was rooting for Spider-Man, I also wanted The Vulture to win occasionally.

“Homecoming” isn’t perfect due to a redundant narrative. Throughout the whole movie, Peter tends an event, conveniently notices The Vulture in action nearby, apologizes to his friends, ditches them, fights the baddy, then apologizes again. I would have preferred each action sequence setting up confrontation differently.

The redundant narrative is forgivable due to the performances and a couple of harrowing action sequences that capture both Spider-Man’s noble and destructive nature. He isn’t destructive like Zack Snyder’s Superman  and not take responsibility; he’s a powerful kid who doesn’t realize that his actions have consequences. “Homecoming” is a fun time and I’m looking forward to Spider-Man’s return in 2019.

Grade: B+

Ranking of all “Spider-Man” movies favorite-to-least:

  1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
  2. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
  3. “Spider-Man” (2002)
  4. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)
  5. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
  6. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)

“Logan”

Hearing a drunken Logan (Hugh Jackman) utter “Fuck” in the opening of “Logan” is a clear warning that this isn’t a kid-friendly “X-Men” film. “Logan” is a grim, bloody, and depressing character study.

Set years after Logan saved the future in “Days of Future Past,” the X-Men are no more and Logan is a has-been. He’s a limo driver and drug dealer caring for a senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart). When Logan is offered a large sum of money to drive a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota, he finds that she has a lot in common with him. For example, they both have a group of cyborg mercenaries led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) on their tale.

“Logan” is an unconventional superhero film. It has more in common with the Western and Apocalyptic Sci-Fi genre films like “Unforgiven” and “Children of Men” than it does with “X-Men.” Director James Mangold (who also directed “The Wolverine”) depicts the world of “Logan” as a sad, hopeless, and violent world that no one wishes to live in.

The journey of Logan throughout the films has been him surviving horror and war, hoping to find peace. Here, Logan’s accepted that peace is out of the question, and that he’s destined to live a never-ending life of carnage. Jackman plays the part perfectly, and it’s been an honor watching him for seventeen years.

Patrick Stewart deserves serious award recognition for his work as Charles. Whether he monologues about family or his guilt, or manically rambles about Taco Bell, Stewart is both heartbreaking and sincere, providing much-needed light to a bleak film.

The supporting cast is fine, with Boyd Holbrook playing Pierce as a fanboy who wants to be buddies with Logan, and Stephen Merchant as a mutant ally of Logan’s, but they’re mostly exposition tools. Their talent is no match for newcomer Dafne Keen, who’s the most badass on-screen kid since Eleven in “Stranger Things.”

Hugh Jackman has stated that “Logan” is his last run as Wolverine. Given it’s his ninth time playing the part, does he have to stop now? Because we can use more R-rated Wolverine movies.

Grade: A-

Ranking of the “X-Men” Films (excluding “Deadpool”):

  1. “X-Men: First Class”
  2. “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
  3. “Logan”
  4. “X2: X-Men United”
  5. “X-Men”
  6. “The Wolverine”
  7. “X-Men: Apocalypse”
  8. “X-Men: The Last Stand”
  9. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”