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Why “Joker” Is Brilliant, But Controversial (For The Wrong Reasons)

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Every now and then, a movie comes along that’s brilliant in so many ways, but undermined by the circumstances of its release. In the same way certain movies come along at just the right time to become a cultural phenomenon, others hit theaters with unexpected forces working against them.

When “The Dark Knight” came out in 2008, its timing was perfect. It struck all the right notes from a cinematic, narrative, and cultural perspective. On top of that, Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker went down as one of the greatest displays of acting prowess of all time, and not just for a superhero movie. For many, myself included, Ledger’s version of the Joker will always be the one by which all others are measured.

By contrast, “Joker” couldn’t have been timed worse. The current social, political, and cultural landscape is vulnerable and hypersensitive to every one of the themes it explores. On top of that, the movie explores those things very well, so much so that it warrants being in the same conversation as “The Dark Knight” in terms of how it portrays the Joker.

While Heath Ledger’s Joker is still superior in almost every way, what Joaquin Phoenix accomplished in this movie deserves plenty of praise. At the very least, it helps cleanse the memories of those still cringing at Jared Leto’s rather eccentric take on the character in “Suicide Squad.”

This movie, as well as Phoenix’s performance, comes at a time when taboos about mental health and disturbed lonely men are hot-button topics. On top of that, a string of mass shootings perpetrated by disturbed men, some with disturbing manifestos, has created real-life horror while stoking genuine fears. The story in “Joker” neither avoids nor downplays those issues.

This movie also dares to do something that few beyond Alan More has been able to achieve, which is to give the Joker a backstory. For many lifelong comic fans, especially Batman fans, the very concept of fleshing out this character undermines the core of his appeal. He has always functioned better as a chaotic force of nature rather than a person with a tangible history.

Ever since his creation in 1940, his life and his story have been vague. He has been defined as a perfect counter to Batman’s never-ending crusade. Whereas Batman seeks justice through clear, defined rules, the Joker seeks chaos and laughs at such rules. He can never be too defined, as a character, if he’s to personify that chaos.

Despite these challenges, “Joker” finds a way to tell his story and, like “The Dark Knight” before it, actually manages to make the Joker even more terrifying. Through the character of Arthur Fleck, we see a disturbed mind trapped within an environment that does everything to make his condition worse. Through both unavoidable circumstances and fateful choices, we see this broken mind become something far more dangerous.

It doesn’t happen all at once. There’s no single trigger, like falling into a vat of chemicals. There’s a cumulative effect to Arthur Fleck’s transformation. It’s not always logical or smooth, which comes off as intentional from the beginning. The only constant is that Fleck gets more twisted and unhinged with each escalating event.

This is where Phoenix’s performance really shines. He carries himself with a presence that feels very close to what Ledger captured in “The Dark Knight.” He starts off as simply being mentally ill and struggling with it. However, what he does with his illness and what it does to him turns him into something more than just another disturbed loner.

It’s here where the controversy behind the “Joker” takes hold. I would argue it’s a dumb controversy, but it was serious enough for Aurora, Colorado to cancel screenings of the movie. While it feels like an overreaction, it’s somewhat understandable, given what happened in Aurora in 2012.

If that were the extent of the controversy, then “Joker” would only be a passing concern for most people. Then came the idea the movie celebrates or glorifies “incel culture” through Fleck’s story. While I usually try to be balanced when scrutinizing certain ideas, even if they’re absurd, I can’t do that this time.

Simply put, this part of the controversy is just plain stupid. There’s no better way to say it.

Worrying that this movie might somehow inspire lonely, disturbed men to go on killing sprees is completely without merit. It’s akin to worrying that “Friday the 13th” will inspire anyone who wears a hockey mask to brutally murder camp counselors. Moreover, the absurdity of this controversy undercuts the more substantive messages of this movie.

There is a real message in “Joker” and it has nothing to do with incels, masculinity, or even violence. In this world, Gotham City is the perfect symbol of a grossly flawed society that tries to pretend those flaws can be fixed by staying the course. From the perspective of people like Arthur Fleck, this notion is a complete joke.

Much like our world, there’s a small segment of very rich, very powerful people who benefit the most from this society. The Wayne family is the perfect manifestation of this joke. Even when they carry themselves as responsible, upstanding pillars of the community, they still look down at those who are dissatisfied. On top of that, they think their dissatisfaction is a flaw.

Arthur Fleck is as caught up as anyone in this decaying society. Then, through details I won’t spoil, he starts something that inspires chaos that would make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud. That chaos may or may not be entirely justified, but it’s understandable. In a sense, the Joker is just an extreme manifestation of something that seemed inevitable.

If there is a real controversy with “Joker,” it’s that the wrong issues became controversial. This movie conveys a message to the rich, powerful people who benefit the most from society that things aren’t as rosy as they seem. Those same people who think they know the solutions have no idea what people at the bottom are going through and dismissing them as “clowns” only makes things worse.

We’ve already seen this happen in the real world. The powerful who seek greater power call those who lash out as unimportant or misguided. They think those who protest loudly have nothing of merit to say, which only feels like an excuse to not listen. In that sense, it’s probably not surprising that many media outlets have turned on this movie, albeit for the wrong reasons.

At its core, “Joker” highlights the craziness that compounds craziness. In a world that’s unfair, unjust, and full of lies, how can sane person not be driven insane by their circumstances? Arthur Fleck had more circumstances than most and his mental illness only compounded the situation.

There are times when it’s not entirely clear when the events unfolding are real or vivid delusions. It nicely reflects the uncertain nature of the Joker’s origins, as both the Killing Joke and “The Dark Knight” have previously established. There’s a point in the movie where it becomes unclear where Arthur Fleck truly comes from or whether that name is truly his.

In the end, his name doesn’t matter because once he becomes the Joker, he becomes something more than just a mentally ill loner. For certain people who have seen mentally ill loners commit atrocities in the real world, it sparks real fear. At the same time, “Joker” makes clear that’s the wrong target.

After seeing “Joker,” I feel like I just saw a movie that people are going to be talking about for years to come. It’s a movie that can be interpreted in many ways, which is perfectly befitting of the Joker’s chaotic nature. At the same time, I knew some of those interpretations would be used in the name of an agenda and not in a good way.

In another time, “Joker” would be hailed as a movie worthy of praise on the level of “The Dark Knight.” However, because it came out at a time when people fear the lonely, deranged men more than the society that creates them, it’s not able to have the same impact. It’s still an excellent movie and one that will have a unique place in cinematic history for years to come.

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“Spider-Man: Far From Home” Review: An Amazing Movie With One Spectacular Flaw

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In this golden age of superhero movies, Spider-Man occupies a special place. Aside from being one of Stan Lee’s most famous creations, this franchise has undergone many triumphs, failures, scandals, upheavals, and everything in between. No matter where it stands among other franchises, Marvel just isn’t Marvel without Spider-Man.

The first “Spider-Man” movie helped revolutionize the superhero genre alongside “X-Men.” It’s not unreasonable to say that the Marvel Cinematic Universe wouldn’t exist without that first movie. That’s why when Spider-Man entered the MCU with “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” it carried a lot of weight.

With “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” both the standards and the stakes are higher. This movie is coming off the historic success of “Avengers Endgame” and is poised to close out Phase 3 of the MCU. It’s tasked with building on the foundation of its predecessor and dealing with the dramatic aftermath of the battle against Thanos. That’s a tall order for any franchise.

Look at this face and tell me I’m wrong. I dare you.

At the same time, it feels like Spider-Man has to be the franchise to pull this off. Between its special place in the genre and its cast of emerging stars, including the inherently lovable Tom Holland, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” feels like the only movie worthy of such a task. It has everything going for it. The question remains. Does it succeed?

In my humble opinion, I say it does, but not without some major flaws.

In terms of the big picture, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is a quality Spider-Man movie that checks a lot of boxes, both for the franchise and for the MCU. It seamlessly weaves itself into the evolving narrative of the MCU in wake of “Avengers Endgame.” The first five minutes of the movie touch on the lingering aftermath of that climactic battle. It even injects some of that trademark MCU humor into some heavy moments.

On a more personal level, Peter Parker’s story builds upon the drama of Tony Stark’s death in “Avengers Endgame.” Throughout the movie, Iron Man’s presence looms large. Spider-Man is essentially stuck in the shadow of another hero who really affected his journey as a character in “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” It makes for plenty of dramatic moments that guide Peter throughout the story.

In terms of it genre, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” even succeeds in maintaining the increasingly high bar that Marvel Studios has set for its villains. While Jake Gyllenhaal’s Mysterio won’t rank as highly as Josh Brolin’s Thanos, he proves himself a daunting foe who doesn’t just test Spider-Man. He comes very close to breaking him.

I would even go so far as to say that Gyllenhaal’s take on Mysterio is worth the inflated ticket price. He makes “Spider-Man: Far From Home” work on multiple levels. I would argue that he’s the primary reason why the movie succeeds, despite its critical flaws.

Now, this is where I’m probably going to diverge from the those who have given this movie such glowing reviews. I may even upset some of my fellow Marvel fans who recoil at the idea of an MCU movie faltering. However, I believe the flaws are there and are being overshadowed by factors beyond the scope of the movie.

To me, the biggest failure of this movie isn’t in how it tells Spider-Man’s story. It’s in how it develops Peter Parker’s story. The battle between Spider-Man and Mysterio is beautifully developed. It’s what happens when Peter is out of his mask where the story stagnates and it has everything to do with Zendaya’s character, “MJ.”

I put “MJ” in quotes because she is definitively not Mary Jane Watson, Spider-Man’s most famous love interest in the comics and the character that Kirsten Dunst portrayed in the first three Spider-Man movies. That’s not the issue, though. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” established her and Peter’s friends as something very different from the comics. It wouldn’t be the first time the MCU made such changes.

The problem with MJ, Peter, and their shared role in “Spider-Man: Far From Home” is how poorly their romantic sub-plot plays out. It’s not a trivial sub-plot, either. A good chunk of the plot involves Peter following this elaborate plan to tell MJ how he feels about her. On paper, it’s pretty romantic. In practice, it’s a catalyst for too many cringe-worthy moments.

There’s no polite way to say it. The romance between Peter and MJ in this movie is awful. I won’t say it’s as awful as the nonsensical babble we saw between Peter and Gwen in “Amazing Spider-Man,” but it’s pretty close and for the high standards of the MCU, it’s just unacceptable.

While “Spider-Man: Homecoming” did an admirable job of establishing the dynamics between Peter and MJ, it falls incredibly flat in “Spider-Man: Far From Home.” In fact, if you didn’t see “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” Peter’s efforts to get with MJ seem more obsessive than romantic. At one point, he becomes downright vindictive when someone else tries to get with her. It does not reflect well on Peter.

MJ isn’t much better. Zendaya is a great actress, but she comes off as flat and unemotional throughout this movie. Say what you will about Kirsten Dunst’s portrayal of Mary Jane, but she still displayed a wide range of emotions throughout three movies. Zendaya’s tone and facial expressions barely change throughout this movie.

In essence, there’s no real chemistry between Peter and MJ. Given how critical this relationship is for the plot of the movie, that’s not a trivial oversight. It frames their actions and their decisions as something petty and selfish. There’s never a sense that Peter and MJ make each other better. If anything, they’re liabilities to one another.

In both the comics and the previous movies, this is not how the romantic sub-plots play out. While Spider-Man’s relationships have always complicated his efforts to be a better superhero, they ultimately make him stronger. They make his decision more heroic and his triumphs more satisfying. In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the romance was more a handicap than a challenge.

Compared to how other romantic sub-plots in the MCU, Peter and MJ’s is by far one of the weakest. It’s established that they’re attracted to one another. That’s the critical first step in any romantic sub-plot. However, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” skips the part where they actually start caring for one another before they develop deeper feelings.

Again, that’s not a trivial oversight. Compare that to other relationships like Starlord and Gamora, Pepper Potts and Iron Man, or even Thor and Jane Foster. It starts with attraction. The characters flirt and tease one another. Then, at some point, that flirting turns into genuine care. They show concern and emotion when they see one another in danger. From there, deeper feelings emerge.

None of that happens with Peter and MJ. Their interactions lack drama, which limits the personal stakes for Spider-Man’s battle against Mysterio. It helps that there are other personal stakes besides MJ that guide this struggle. If anything, those stakes would be a lot more powerful if the sub-plot with MJ were completely removed.

As bad as this romantic sub-plot is, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” still works because so many other elements of the movie are well done. Mysterio is a great villain who really capitalizes on the post-Thanos landscape of the MCU. Peter’s supporting cast, from his teachers to his Aunt May to his best friend Ned, all get a chance to shine. They help give this movie the right impact.

Compared to other Spider-Man movies, “Spider-Man: Far From Home” definitely exceeds the quality of the two “Amazing Spider-Man” movies that came before it. I would also say it’s slightly better than “Spider-Man 3,” albeit barely. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a 6 out of 10. It’s great, but not amazing.

For the MCU, especially after “Avengers Endgame,” the standards for a great superhero movie have never been higher. This movie met many of those standards, but a major flaw in a key sub-plot kept it from exceeding those standards. While I doubt this will hinder the franchise, I believe it’s a flaw that will only get worse if it’s not addressed in the sequels.

If you see the mid-credits scene, then you know what I’m talking about.

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A Fitting Endpoint: My (Spoiler-Free) Review For “Avengers Endgame”

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Starting an epic journey is a daunting challenge. Keeping people engrossed in that journey for over a decade is exceedingly difficult. Ending that journey in a way that’s dramatic, appropriate, and satisfying is damn near impossible. Despite those insane stakes, that’s the primary goal of “Avengers Endgame.” It attempts to cap off the story that began in 2008 with “Iron Man.”

Without spoiling the many dramatic details of this three-hour cinematic experience, I can safely confirm that it did. “Avengers Endgame” achieved that seemingly impossible goal of completing a decade-spanning story that included 22 movies, a cast of top-notch actors, and one talking raccoon. It’s one of those feats that shouldn’t be possible, even with Disney’s deep pockets, but Marvel Studios pulled it off.

It isn’t hyperbole to say that “Avengers Endgame” is a historic cinematic achievement that fundamentally changes the standards for just how bold a movie can be. All the praise from fans and critics alike that this movie has garnered is well-earned, but still doesn’t do justice to what this movie achieved.

It’s not just another step in the ever-expanding saga that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This movie does not set the stage for another sequel or lay the groundwork for the next big battle between the Avengers and the next Thanos-level threat. The movie is true, polished ending that manages to beautifully encapsulate the scope and scale of the story it told.

As a life-long comic book fan and a fan of superhero media, going back to the days of Saturday morning cartoons, this movie was both satisfying and impactful. I came out of the theater with my heart still racing and my mind still reeling from what I just witnessed. Part of me was sad. Part of me was elated. In all, though, I felt like I’d completed a journey alongside these beloved characters.

Even if you’re not a fan of comics and only know these characters through the movies, “Avengers Endgame” still succeeds in terms of raw storytelling. Years of world-building and character development really come to ahead in this movie. The shared journeys of characters like Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Bruce Banner provide plenty of dramatic weight to everything that happens.

Make no mistake, though. A lot happens. This movie will test your bladder almost as much as it tests your heart. There are so many characters to juggle and many of them have their own arcs. Tony, Steve, Thor, and Hawkeye are all in wildly different places throughout the story, literally and figuratively. Coming together again in a cohesive plot takes time and effort, something the Russo brothers do not shy away from.

As a result, “Avengers Endgame” is very different structurally from “Avengers Infinity War.” Whereas “Avengers Infinity War” played out like unfolding battle with Thanos leading the charge, “Avengers Endgame” is very much a reaction to the aftermath of that battle. To say it left some traumatic scars would be the understatement of all understatements.

There’s no getting around it. Thanos won and the Avengers failed. Before anyone can even contemplate undoing the damage, these characters have to adjust to a world that has been decimated on an unimaginable scale. Processing, exploring, and reacting to that decimation is a big part of what makes that final showdown sufficiently epic.

That means are sizable parts of this movie that don’t involve Hulk smashing things, Captain America fighting Hydra agents, or Iron Man blowing stuff up. “Avengers Endgame” puts much more time and energy into character moments and interpersonal drama, which were fewer and less developed in “Avengers Infinity War.” However, none of this time ever feels wasted or drawn out.

It helps make that final showdown all the more meaningful. It’ll get you to cheer, gasp, cry, and cringe every step of the way. I can even attest that there are moments in this movie that got the people in the theater out of their seats and cheering. In all my experience with superhero movies, I can’t remember the last time a movie got people that emotional.

There’s a lot I can say about how “Avengers Endgame” succeeds in making the emotional investment of the past 22 movies pay off. I don’t think I need to belabor how important this component was in making this movie work in a satisfying, climactic manner. While the movie succeeds in this critical aspect, there are other noteworthy details.

In terms of pure entertainment value, it is not as great as “Avengers Infinity War.” I would even argue the first “Avengers” movie had more spectacle and was more cohesive, overall. There were times when “Avengers Endgame” felt somewhat chaotic, due to all the character arcs it had to balance. While it managed to juggle them all effectively, there’s only so much that can be done to keep that narrative concise.

It’s also worth noting that some character narratives were managed better than others. I won’t cite specific characters for spoiler reasons, but they fairly obvious within the first hour of the movie. I’m sure fans of certain characters will be conflicted by how things play out, but I doubt those same fans will be too disappointed.

Fans of the distinct humor that often shows up in Marvel Studios productions will also have plenty to laugh at. Granted, the bleak circumstances of the movie make that tricky, but moments are there and they never feel too forced. They’re not quite as numerous as they are in other MCU movies, but given the various plots of the story, I’d say there’s just enough to balance the overall tone.

There are some other flaws within this movie, but the extent of those flaws is never more than minor. It would require an extreme level of pettiness and nit-picking to use those flaws to undercut the movie. “Avengers Endgame” is not perfect, nor does it try to be. Its primary goal is to end this era of the MCU and it does so beautifully.

The ending will leave many with tears in their eyes, both from joy and sorrow. There’s equal amounts of tragedy and triumph. Certain characters get a happy ending. Others must deal with loss and tragedy. Overall, it’s a perfect blend of satisfying conclusion and bittersweet finality. It reinforces the notion that these characters are true heroes.

For a movie that begins under such bleak circumstances, the ultimate conclusion really solidifies “Avengers Endgame” as an incredible cinematic experience. If I had to score the movie, I would give it a 9 out of 10. It hits all the right dramatic notes, evokes all the right emotions, and succeeds on a level that few could’ve imagined 11 years ago.

Like Captain America himself, this movie was willing to do whatever it takes to complete this superhero saga for the ages. Moving forward, it’s hard to say what will come of the MCU, especially in wake of the Disney/Fox merger, but it’s safe to say that “Avengers Endgame” has set a bold new standard for just how great a superhero movie can be.

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Shazam! Review: A Simple Formula For Maximum Fun

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When a particular genre becomes over-saturated and overdone, it’s tempting to try and reinvent the concept in hopes of striking a new chord. It’s especially tempting when so many others have risen the bar to such an insane extent that success can only be measured in billions instead of millions.

It would’ve been easy for a movie like “Shazam” to give into such temptation. With the recent success of “Aquaman” and “Avengers Endgame” set to break all sorts of box office records, it seems like this movie has to do something extreme, just to stand out. How else would it succeed in such a crowded market in a golden age of superhero movies?

That was my greatest concern before I saw “Shazam.” As much as I loved the trailer, I was worried that this movie would try so hard to stand out that it would overlook the part of actually being a fun cinematic experience. That sort of oversight has been plaguing the DC Extended Universe since “Man of Steel.”

This picture sums up the issues nicely.

Well, having seen the movie, I’m happy to say that none of those concerns were founded. In fact, I’m elated to report that “Shazam” is another big win for DC Comics and superhero movies, as a whole. However, it didn’t win because it reinvented the genre or did something radically different. It won because it followed the basic formula for quality superhero movies and had fun along the way.

It helps that the core appeal of Shazam, as a character and superhero, is that it approaches heroics with a childlike playfulness. Billy Batson, the alter ego of the titular hero, is not some jaded adult like Batman. He’s not even a boy scout idealist like Superman. He’s just a kid and one who got dealt a bad hand, for that matter. Being both an orphan and a troublemaker, he sees the adult world through very different eyes.

That’s a novel perspective, to some extent. Every other superhero movie, even going back to the era of Richard Donner’s “Superman,” has framed the idea through an adult lens. It always starts out as something simple. An individual gets superpowers, they start carrying out simple acts of heroism, and those acts eventually get complicated, as often happens with adult issues.

With a character like Billy, things never get that complicated. Again, he’s a kid. Even in his heroic form, he sees conflict with a childlike simplicity and “Shazam” captures that simplicity perfectly. The movie doesn’t deviate much from the details and themes of the source material. Concepts like the Rock of Eternity and the Seven Enemies of Man are present and accurately portrayed.

Such details may not matter to those unfamiliar with the comics, but such accuracy is largely a bonus. What really makes this movie work is how it follows Billy’s journey and not just the one he undergoes as a hero. His evolution when he’s not a magically-endowed superhero is arguably the most meaningful aspect of the story.

When we first meet Billy, it’s hard to discern whether he has the spirit of a hero. He’s no upstanding boy scout. In fact, he’s very much a troublemaker who’s willing to thumb his nose at police, break the rules when it benefits him, and run away from anyone who tries to help him. However, he never comes close to crossing that might send him down a darker path.

It’s that trait that sets him apart from his villainous counterpart, Dr. Sivana. While he’s no Thanos, he demonstrates that he’s a lot like Billy in a few key aspects. He’s given a chance to become a hero, but is unable to refuse the temptation that often comes with immense power. That failure haunts him and pushes him down a darker path.

For a time, it seems as though Billy could walk a similar path. When he first gets his powers, he reacts in ways that most would expect of a 14-year-old boy. He tries to buy beer. He tries to make money. He even ventures into a strip club. It’s hilarious and cute, but it also establishes the perfect tone for a movie that avoids complicating the standard superhero narrative.

Within that narrative, there’s a hero who makes choices and learns from his mistakes. There’s also a villain who makes choices and refuses to learn from them. When they eventually clash, it’s a flashy spectacle with simple, understandable stakes. It’s no Battle of Wakanda, but it doesn’t have to be.

The look of someone who DIDN’T get to work with Josh Brolin.

From the moment he first gets his powers to the final showdown with Dr. Sivana, Billy develops into his own hero, but never loses his childlike mentality. He’s not forced to grow up too fast, nor does he have to abandon the civilian life he’s trying to establish. Whereas being Bruce Wayne is often an inconvenience for Batman, being Billy Batson is necessary for Shazam.

This shows in the seamless characterization provided by Asher Angel, who plays young Billy, and Zachary Levi, who plays Shazam. At no point does either manifestation feel like a different character. They both wield the same childlike charisma as they navigate their superhero journey. The same lovability that made Levi so great in shows like “Chuck” help him and Angel bring out the best in Billy Batson.

When the movie begins, it’s not clear that Billy has what it takes to be a competent hero. Trying to determine his worth is like trying to determine if some random 14-year-old will one day play in the NFL. The odds are against them, but the potential is still there. By the time the credits roll, the message is clear. Billy has the spirit that Shazam was looking for and you can’t help but root for him.

At its core, “Shazam” checks all the right boxes for the classic hero’s journey. Billy Batson is perfectly poised to take that journey and not just because he’s one of many orphans who become superheroes. The movie doesn’t try to subvert these tried and true tropes. If anything, it embraces them and dares to have a little fun along the way.

It’s easy to share in that fun. The humor is exactly what you would expect of a movie that involves 14-year-olds getting superpowers. It’s serious when it needs to be, but never too serious. Given the grim and gritty settings of other DC Extended Universe movies, it’s a breath of fresh air that the superhero genre badly needed.

It’s not without its flaws. Some details of Billy’s life are underdeveloped and glossed over. There were also inconsistencies with Dr. Sivana as well, but none were egregious to the point where they derailed the movie. It simply stuck to a simple formula, mixed in a few twists along the way, and made the most of what it had to work with.

If I had to score “Shazam,” I would give it an 8 out of 10. It didn’t reinvent superhero movies or raise the bar. It was simply a fun, entertaining movie that gave a character with little star power a chance to shine. It even managed to accomplish all this without trying too hard to make him like Batman. For a DC Comics movie, that alone is a major accomplishment.

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Higher, Further, Faster, And Fun: A (Spoiler-Free) Review Of “Captain Marvel”

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Soaring to new heights, venturing into uncharted territory, and achieving greater things always requires a great deal of risk. If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll only get what you’ve always gotten and that’s just not enough for some people. For Marvel Studios, the gold standard by which all other movie studios are measured, it has to take those risks in order to expand its dominance into another decade.

A movie as big as “Avengers: Infinity War” or as diverse as “Black Panther” had high stakes on top of higher aspirations. They had to keep raising the bar that Marvel Studios had already raised to unprecedented heights. Those movies both succeeded and raked in record profits, but even those movies never faced challenges like the ones faced by “Captain Marvel.”

Without a doubt, this movie will go down as one of the riskiest movies Marvel Studios has ever made, which is saying something for the same studio that made an “Ant Man” movie. It’s not just because “Captain Marvel” is Marvel’s first female-led superhero movie, nor is it because DC set a pretty high bar with “Wonder Woman.”

Captain Marvel” arrives with more baggage than any other superhero movie not associated with Joel Shumacher. In some respects, it’s coming out at the worst possible time. This is an era where gender politics are on a hair-trigger and features an actress who has been outspoken on where her political affiliations lie. It’s like bringing a tank of gasoline to a growing wildfire.

The context of this movie and its politics are already well-documented and I’ve made my opinions on it known. Beyond the politics, the heated gender debates, and coordinated efforts to tank this movie, there’s still one critical question that overrides all the baggage and burdens.

Is “Captain Marvel” a good movie?

Having seen it at a midnight showing in which the theater was quite packed, I can say in my humble opinion that yes. It is a good, entertaining movie. It doesn’t deviate too far from the Marvel Studios tradition of making superhero movies that are fun, entertaining, and heartfelt. However, “Captain Marvel” ends up achieving much more than that.

Before I go any further, I want to make a few comments about the heated politics surrounding this movie. I’m not going to focus too much on them, but I’m not going to avoid them, either. I get that some people will go into this movie with certain expectations and look for any excuse to justify those expectations. This is my response to those specific individuals.

No, this movie is not laced with radical feminist undertones.

No, this movie does not denigrate men or a specific race of men.

No, this movie does not make overtly political statements.

No, Carol Danvers is not a Mary Sue who is never allowed to fail or be wrong.

Yes, the movie is entertaining and fun in the tradition of good superhero movies.

Yes, the movie is respectful of the history and personality of the character.

Having said all that, I understand that there are a number of people who may disagree with every one of those statements. However, after seeing the movie and having time to digest all its high-flying details, I believe that doing so requires a level of outright pettiness that obscures just how good this movie is.

 

This movie does not have the luxury of expanding on a character who was previously introduced. Unlike Black Panther, Carol has nothing to build on when the movie starts. However, things move quickly once the action gets going. We find out early on that Carol is in a difficult situation, but tenuous situation. In addition, that situation helps further the world-building that is so distinct of the MCU.

We learn more about the Kree in the first 20 minutes of this movie than we have in any other Marvel movie, to date. They’ve been mentioned before in “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but who they are and what they’re like is firmly established in “Captain Marvel.” Their iconic rivals, the Skrulls, are also introduced and it’s here where the movie really shines.

If you’re not familiar with the history of comics, it’s hard to overstate how critical the Kree/Skrull war is to the cosmic side of the Marvel universe. This massive war is something that Carol finds herself in the middle of and her role in it evolves over the course of the movie. Without getting too heavy into spoiler territory, it’s safe to say that this evolution is what helps make her Captain Marvel.

Carol’s story isn’t just about her seeking to fly higher, further, and faster. Through both flashbacks to her past and struggles in the present, her journey from being a loyal Kree warrior to Captain Marvel feels personal, even as it moves the story forward. At first, it feels like the story is on a predictable path. However, that changes, thanks largely to Carol’s the supporting cast.

This is where Samuel L. Jackson’s role as Nick Fury and Ben Mendelson’s role as Talos really complements the story. Their choices and their actions put Carol in a situation where she comes to some difficult realizations and has to make difficult decisions. In doing so, she becomes the hero that she needs to be, both for this movie and for the MCU.

It’s not unlike the evolution that other characters like Tony Stark and Thor have undergone. They start off with one particular outlook on their world. Then, they find themselves in a situation that undermines and even shatters what they thought was right and true. Rather than avoid the unpleasant implications, they confront them. That’s what heroes do and that’s what Carol Danvers does.

By the end of “Captain Marvel,” it’s easy to root for Carol. As she realizes her true power, she becomes the kind of hero that fits right in with the Avengers. The source of that power is not something she inherits or pursues. True to her comic book origins, her high-flying aspirations lead to an accident that comes close to destroying her. Also like the comics, it renders her vulnerable in unexpected ways.

Throughout the movie, Carol is guided and often frustrated by her limits. Some of those limits are things she puts on herself. Some are limits that others impose on her. Overcoming such limits, be they her own emotions or the actions of others, is the true strength of her character. It’s a strength that anyone, regardless of race, gender, or anything of the sort, can respect.

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws in that journey, along the way. In terms of a superhero origin movie, I would not put “Captain Marvel” above the ranks of “Batman Begins” or “Iron Man.” The movie does feel somewhat congested in several areas and the pacing, especially in the early parts of the movie, are a bit erratic.

There’s also an issue with villains in this movie, to the extent that they’re vague. Both the Skrulls and Jude Law’s, Yon-Rogg, aren’t going to give Thanos or Erik Killmonger a run for their money. Even the presence of a young Ronan the Accuser feels like a missed opportunity. While Carol has plenty of fights to pick in this movie, the lack of a major villain is somewhat glaring.

Let’s face it. Nobody was going to top THIS guy.

However, this doesn’t keep “Captain Marvel” from succeeding in the ways we’ve come to expect from Marvel Studios. The distinct bits of humor and tone are definitely there. The use of 90s nostalgia, from grunge rock to Blockbuster, works at every turn. The choice of music is spot on for every scene. Like “Captain America” and “Wonder Woman,” the time and place fits perfectly with the story.

By nearly every measure, “Captain Marvel” checks all the right boxes, in terms of a quality product from Marvel Studios. Again, it is possible for someone to single out certain scenes as proof that the movie is trying to make a political statement. However, I would argue that you could find similar scenes in movies like “Wonder Woman” and even “Deadpool.”

At the end of the day, if you’re really determined to hate this movie and label it as some sort of hit piece against a particular race or gender, you’ll find multiple excuses. However, it still requires a level of pettiness that requires someone to actively look for a reason to be offended and there’s already too much of that in this world.

If you watch “Captain Marvel” with the sole desire to be entertained and see the MCU evolve before your eyes, this movie will deliver in all the right ways. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a 4 out of 5. It’s a fun ride with a few bumps along the way, but is ultimately satisfying by the end. On top of that, the post-credits scene help further build the excitement for “Avengers: Endgame.”

Also, no matter your politics, the Stan Lee tribute at the beginning of the movie is beautiful.

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“Happy Death Day 2U” Review: A Quality Sequel With Noticeable Flaws

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Slasher movies are one of those frustrating genres that have a lot of overdone tropes, but a handful of gems that really stand out. These movies tend to have a standard formula from which few deviates. There’s a mysterious killer on the loose. A group of attractive young people try to escape. All the promiscuous ones die while the sweet, innocent virgin who never shows her tits survives.

If you’ve seen any slasher movie after the first “Halloween” in 1978, then you’ve seen this play out any number of ways. However, it’s because that formula is so overdone that the first “Happy Death Day” felt so refreshing. When I reviewed this movie, I lauded how it injected fresh nuance into the typical horror/slasher formula. It didn’t completely abandon that formula, but it didn’t play by the rules either.

That approach paid off. The move went onto make over $125 million worldwide, despite having a budget just below $5 million. That’s a pretty good payoff for horror/slasher movie in an era where superhero movies dominate and movies that punish beautiful women for being sexy is losing favor. Not surprisingly, this success warranted a sequel in “Happy Death Day 2U.”

Considering how the first movie wrapped things up so neatly, a sequel comes with greater risk. How do you even build on a story where a young woman is stuck in a time loop where she dies at the hands of a killer every time? After the time loop ends, shouldn’t the story also end? “Happy Death Day 2U” tries to make the case that there’s still room for the story to grow.

By and large, the movie succeeds in telling that story. However, I don’t believe the movie works quite as well as the first in terms of impact and nuance. I admit I was skeptical, and even a little disappointed, when I heard that a sequel was in the works. For a movie that overtly referenced “Groundhog Day,” which never got a sequel, it seemed like it could only be counterproductive.

To some extent, those concerns were vindicated at the start of the movie. One of the things that made “Groundhog Day” such an effective concept was that we never learned what caused the time loop that trapped Phil Connors. While the cause was revealed in the original scrip to the movie, the act of not explaining the cause helped make it an effective plot device.

Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t bother with such ambiguity. Within the first half-hour of the movie, we find out what caused Tree Gelbman to get stuck in the time loop that plagued her in the first movie. I won’t spoil too many details. I’ll just say that there’s nothing overly supernatural or subtly spiritual about it.

That’s not to say it still doesn’t work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it adds an extra level of innovation to the horror/slasher formula that the first “Happy Death Day” did so much to alter. The stakes are different this time around, but the concept is the same. Tree is stuck in a time loop again, but the story has less to do with how she escapes and more to do with the price she pays to do so.

There isn’t quite as much mystery, but there are new complications that add a different kind of intrigue. The nature of the loop and the identity of the killer is different, this time. Motivations and obstacles are different too, but similar enough to build upon the foundation that the first movie established.

While I didn’t care for how “Happy Death Day 2U” explained the time loop, I still found myself genuinely intrigued by Tree’s journey, as well as that of her supporting cast. In the first movie, much like Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day,” Tree starts off as a selfish, arrogant, mean-spirited person who is difficult to root for. Over the course of the movie, though, she becomes more likable.

Tree’s journey in “Happy Death Day 2U” takes it even further by testing her new persona. Instead of becoming a better person by navigating the time loop, Tree is faced with a series of difficult, gut-wrenching choices. Beyond surviving the killer, escaping the time loop means paying a heavy price. Within the moments of bloody violence and messy deaths, she agonizes over that price.

That aspect of the story is what makes “Happy Death Day 2U” worth seeing. Even if it loses something by explaining the source of the time loop, it gains something by building on Tree’s story. We learn more and more about why she was such a self-loathing bitch in the first place, which makes her growth from that persona even more satisfying.

By the end of “Happy Death Day 2U,” it feels like Tree has take yet another step. She shows just how much she has grown, as a result of her experience in the time loop. It also gives even more weight to the blossoming relationship she has with Carter Davis. Her feelings for him and his feelings for her feel a lot more genuine by the time the credits roll.

As meaningful as this kind of character growth is, though, “Happy Death Day 2U” doesn’t hide from the fact that it’s still a slasher movie. Like its predecessor, it’s overtly coy with how it portrays the violence and death scenes. It’s a little gratuitous, at times. It also employs some tongue-in-cheek humor that helps balance things out.

Happy Death Day 2U” never tries to be too bloody, but never tries to be too funny, either. It takes what the first movie did and builds on the foundation. While it doesn’t feel as novel or innovative as the first, it still captures the overall spirit and style.

The movie still has flaws beyond explaining the cause of the time loop and limiting the overall mystery. Like the first one, this movie feels like it holds back at times. It probably could’ve done a lot more with an R-rating instead of a standard PG-13 rating, but there’s never a sense that the movie attempts to walk a fine line between the two.

In addition, while Tree’s character undergoes plenty of growth, Carter still doesn’t get nearly as much. We still don’t know much about who he is or what makes him tick. He still shows plenty of backbone throughout the movie, stepping up in a way that make him easy to root for, both as a character and as Tree’s love interest. It just feels like he doesn’t get his chance to shine.

There’s also the issue of needing to see the first “Happy Death Day” to understand what’s going on here. This is one of those movies where the prequel really isn’t optional if you want to appreciate everything that happens. In fact, this movie build so much upon the first that it basically acts as an extension more than a sequel.

Those flaws aside, “Happy Death Day 2U” is still a solid movie that took some considerable risks. Those risks paid off in that it further established this franchise a badly-needed shot in the arm for a genre that has become less relevant in recent years. If I had to score this movie, I would give it a solid 4 out of 5.

There is still a place for horror/slasher movies and there probably always will be. “Happy Death Day 2U” demonstrates that there’s still plenty of room for blood, violence, sex appeal, and creepy masked killers in the current cinematic landscape. John Carpenter and Wes Craven may have helped perfect that formula, but “Happy Death Day 2U” adds some new and overdue ingredients.

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A Meta-Level Marvel: A Review Of “Deadpool 2”

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When a movie becomes an unexpected hit, both with critics and at the box office, the biggest question isn’t whether or not the studio will make a sequel. Major studios just love money too much. It’s just a matter of whether or not the sequel will be able to capture the magic of what made the first movie so great.

The first “Deadpool” movie was an unexpected hit that Fox didn’t even want to make. It broke so many rules, both with its R-rating and with its unorthodox approach to making superhero movies. In fact, it spent a good chunk of its overly violent first act establishing that “Deadpool” is not a superhero movie and Deadpool, the character, isn’t a traditional superhero.

By daring to be different while also embracing everything that’s lovable and unique  about the character, “Deadpool” found a way to work, despite a paltry budget and an audience that still hadn’t forgotten Deadpool’s disastrous first appearance in “Wolverine Origins.” Now, “Deadpool 2” faces a new, but less daunting challenge in following up the unprecedented success of its predecessor.

Well, I’ll gladly spoil one detail about this movie. It matches, exceeds, and kicks the ever-loving shit out of those challenges. If you enjoyed the first “Deadpool” movie, then you’ll find plenty to enjoy with “Deadpool 2” and then some. Even if you found yourself unsatisfied with the first “Deadpool” movie, “Deadpool 2” will hit leave you feeling content in a way not possible without the aid of heavy stimulants and skilled hookers.

I realize that’s an overly vulgar way of saying that “Deadpool 2” is a great movie, but after seeing it, I think that’s perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the movie. It is, like its predecessor, an R-rated spectacle that does plenty to earn that rating. There’s plenty of profanity, violence, adult themes, and a lot of butt jokes.

Seriously, this movie doubles down on the appeal of butt jokes. It’s not quite in the same cartoonish mold as “South Park,” but it works because it’s a Deadpool movie. It needs to be vulgar and crude for the same reason water needs to be wet.

However, it’s not just the butt jokes, the violence, the crude humor, or the inherent lovability of Ryan “Mr. Blake Lively” Reynolds brings to the table. There are deeper, less juvenile appeals in “Deadpool 2” that help distinguish it from other superhero movies. It’s true to the Deadpool brand, but still finds a way to transcend its genre.

In the same way the first “Deadpool” movie mixed its superhero narrative with that of a genuine, sex-positive romance story, “Deadpool 2” does something similar. Instead of a romance story, though, the movie frames itself as a story about family and how to find one in an unfair, unjust world.

It’s a story that deals with serious issues of abandonment, abuse, and injustice. It does much more than its predecessor to incorporate the struggles minorities face that have played out in previous “X-men” movies. However, “Deadpool 2” never feels too much like an X-men movie. It keeps things personal and that’s key to making its story work.

Besides butt jokes and breaking the 4th wall, the underlying theme that drives the narrative in this movie is how everyone’s family gets shattered by various forces. Deadpool loses his family. Cable loses his family. Russell, also known as Firefist, is basically without a family from the beginning.

Those respective losses are what drive the characters through the story. That gives it a level of emotional weight that you wouldn’t expect for a movie based on a wise-cracking, exceedingly violent character who was heavily derived from an established DC character. That emotional weight is critical for both Deadpool and his supporting cast.

It’s here where “Deadpool 2” further improves on its predecessor. Unlike the first movie, it digs a little deeper into the vast catalog of X-men characters. The most important of those characters is Cable, the time-traveling badass whose convoluted origin story involves a clone of Jean Grey. It’s a character that Josh Brolin brings to life perfectly.

Already riding high from how he played Thanos in “Avengers: Infinity War,” Brolin’s Cable brings a gruff balance to Deadpool’s quirky persona. That’s not just critical for the overall feel of the movie. It’s a critical element to their relationship, as established in the comics.

It’s not at all necessary to be familiar with their history in the comics to appreciate it in this movie, but as a life-long X-men fan, it’s nice bonus to see the spirit of the comics find their way into the movies. Given how often superhero movies take liberties with comic lore these days, that does count for something for fans like me.

As a result, Cable’s gruff, overly serious demeanor complements Deadpool’s eccentricities perfectly. Having both suffered immense personal losses, they both seek the same thing. Their methods are just very different and that makes for some glorious conflict, complete with references to Brolin’s role as Thanos and his role in “The Goonies.”

Aside from Cable, “Deadpool 2” also brings in other familiar X-men characters. That includes Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who had significant roles in the first movie. It also involves newcomers Bedlam, Shatterstar, and most notably, Zazie Beetz’s Domino. While not all these characters get a chance to shine, Domino does plenty to steal the show in multiple scenes.

There’s even a lengthy list of cameos throughout the movie and not just of the Stan Lee variety. The movie, even with its more serious themes involving family and loss, still finds plenty of ways to lighten the mood and have fun with itself. It never takes itself too seriously or gets too dark. It finds a way to mix in just the right amount of humor into everything.

By nearly every measure, “Deadpool 2” checks all the necessary boxes for an appropriately uncanny sequel. It offers a rich array of content that builds on what the first movie established along with plenty of bonus material, including one of the best post-credits scene of any superhero movie. Even if you don’t care for the movie, that post-credits scene will put a smile on your face, especially if you hatedWolverine Origins.”

That’s not to say it’s a flawless movie. I wouldn’t put this movie above “Avengers: Infinity War” and not just because it’s a different kind of movie. “Deadpool 2” does a lot of things right, but it leaves some things unfinished. There are times when it rushes certain plot elements. As a result, characters like Vanessa and the lovably under-powered Peter feel wasted.

There are also a few instances where the the story feels choppy. Those instances are minor, though. While it would’ve been nice to establish a few other details about characters like Cable and Domino, the overall structure of the movie still works because it keeps the plot of “Deadpool 2” concise. It never tries to cram too much into the story, which has derailed more than a few superhero movies. See “Spider-Man 3.”

Overall, “Deadpool 2” is awesome because it has an identity and sticks to it. There’s crude humor, violence, and plenty of 4th wall breaking. There’s also genuine heart. In the same way the romance elements in the first movie felt sincere, the themes of family and finding a place in an unjust world feel just as sincere in this movie.

You’ll laugh and you’ll feel throughout “Deadpool 2,” but chances are you’ll probably do more laughing. As a whole package, “Deadpool 2” gives you plenty of reasons to leave the movie with a big smile on your face. Whether you’re an X-men fan, a superhero fan, or a fan of neither, this movie gives you something to enjoy.

If I had to score “Deadpool 2,” I would give it a 9 out of 10. It’s not flawless, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s exactly what you want it to be and then some. The ability to make more butt jokes is just a nice bonus.

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