“Thor: Ragnarok”

Replacing a franchise director can be risky. Putting Taika Waititi in charge of Thor: Ragnarok is just what our God of Thunder needed.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) learns that Loki (Tom Hiddleston) survived the end events of The Dark World and they have a bittersweet reunion. They also discover they have an evil sister Hela (Cate Blanchett). Hela takes over Asgard and casts Thor and Loki to Sakaar where the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) forces Thor to become a gladiator. He also reunites with a certain angry green scientist (Mark Ruffalo) and they try to find a way to save Asgard.

Of the MCU franchises, the Thor is my least favorite. I found the first two films repetitive with too much focus on Thor and Jane’s relationship. Ragnarok is a breath of fresh air. Waititi replaces the rushed romance with a platonic friendship, removesThor and Loki’s brooding attitudes and amps up their wit, and he swaps out the Shakespeare undertones for a retro 80s aesthetics. I wanted to yell “YES,” in the theater like Thor does out of the happiness.

We see that Thor’s come a long way in growing up. He’s less arrogant, reckless, and is now wiser and accepting of Loki. Loki is still mischievous, but recognizes how much he cares for Thor. After four movies together, it’s easy to believe Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry as dysfunctional brothers.

Ragnarok is also the funniest MCU film to date. The jokes are physical, slapstick, and self-referential without ever being annoying. During the big battle between Thor and Hulk that’s in every trailer, we’re treated to some of the funniest cross-referencing jokes, thanks to Hiddleston’s comedic timing and facial expressions.

The action sequences are kinetic, flashy, and fun; they felt like a fantasy version of Guardians of the Galaxy due to the candy-colored explosions and retro soundtrack (yes, Immigrant Song is in the movie). Waititi had previously directed The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which spliced humor into over-the-top action sequences. He clearly loves both genres and will continue to make a strong impact.

The end battle is a tad anti-climactic, but is filled with enough character moments to suffice. Each cast member excels with Blanchett’s wonderfully evil villain and Goldblum’s eccentric secondary antagonist being welcome additions. I can’t think of another superhero movie that was this funny.

Grade: A-

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“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)

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

I am Groot… I am Groot…  I am impressed with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It’s the first MCU sequel done right since “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

After completing another successful mission, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) meet the enigmatic Ego (Kurt Russell). He helps the group and reveals himself to be Peter’s dad, shocking the group.

Meanwhile, Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) return to settle their scores, Peter and Gamora must deal with their feelings, Rocket Raccoon comes to terms with who he is, and Baby Groot dances adorably.

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” maintains its predecessor’s energy, colorful effects, kinetic action sequences, and killer soundtrack. It takes the humor and character moments up a few notches, resulting in a surprisingly hilarious and emotional sequel. If “Vol. 1” is “A New Hope,” then “Vol. 2” is “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Without getting too much into the plot, the Guardians split into two groups where alliances form, betrayals occur, and revelations are revealed. Quill spends a portion of the movie torn between family and his destiny; it’s bittersweet and sometimes heartbreaking.

“Vol. 2” is fun, though! Don’t let my description fool you. The standout sequences are a delightful opening credits sequence, a space ship battle that’s an obvious nod to the arcade gaming era, and any scene involving Yondu (Rooker kills it).

The cast is once again great with their chemistry and comedic timing; they’re even better in their dramatic moments. Kurt Russell’s performance is a little too exposition-heavy, but his charm and charisma make it acceptable.

I could have done without Sylvester Stallone as Stakar Ogord. He literally has two minutes of screen time, angrily delivers exposition about Yondu, and leaves until the end. For a hyped character, I expected more for Sly to do.

The MCU has a bad history with sequels, but “Vol. 2” proves you don’t have to one-up all elements for a sequel; it’s okay to slow down and expand on the characters’ back story. You don’t see that in a superhero film often, which is admirable.

Grade: A-