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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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Why The Outrage Over Brie Larson And “Captain Marvel” Is Misguided (And Counterproductive)

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Celebrities sometimes say dumb things. I doubt most people would contest that. Sometimes, celebrities say things that aren’t dumb, but badly taken out of context. I imagine most people would agree with that too. However, in an era where outrage is a national pastime and social media makes it way too easy to blow things out of proportion, it’s easy for a celebrity to cause controversy for all the wrong reasons.

Brie Larson, whose star is set to rise considerably with the release of “Captain Marvel,” is learning this the hard way and a large consortium of angry people on the internet are intent on making it harder. What should’ve been a culmination of a young woman’s career and a female hero’s ascension to the superhero A-list is now mired in the ugliest kind of gender politics.

The origin of that controversy actually had nothing to do with Ms. Larson’s role on “Captain Marvel.” Back in June 2018, she made some overly political comments while accepting the Crystal Award for Excellence in Film. While celebrities making political statements is nothing new, Ms. Larson’s statement was hardly extreme.

It wasn’t some radical feminist tirade.

It wasn’t some angry rant about the outcome of 2016 Presidential Election.

It wasn’t even some act of elaborate virtue signaling by some smug celebrity.

All Ms. Larson did was advocate for greater diversity among film critics. She didn’t just make such a statement on a whim, either. She did so in response to a study published by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism that revealed a significant lack of representation in the industry of film criticism.

That’s not an unreasonable concern. The western world is becoming more diverse and the success of movies like “Black Panther” and “Crazy Rich Asians” shows that there’s a market for such diverse tastes. Advocating for greater representation in the field of film criticism makes a lot of sense.

Unfortunately, that’s not the message that some people gleamed from Ms. Larson’s comments. All they heard was that she doesn’t want to hear from white men anymore. They somehow got the impression that Brie Larson resents white men and her movies, including “Captain Marvel,” aren’t made for them. They’re not even welcome in the conversation.

Who these people are and the politics they represent is difficult to discern. I don’t think it’s accurate to call them conservative, liberal, feminist, anti-feminist, leftist, or any other political label. Outrage culture rarely gets that specific, but given the heated politics surrounding movies like “Ghostbusters” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it’s a frustratingly familiar narrative.

While I can understand some of the outrage surrounding “Ghostbusters” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” in this case I don’t think it’s justified. That’s not just because I’m a big fan of Marvel Comics, superhero movies, and all things Captain Marvel. It’s because the actual substance of Ms. Larson’s words don’t warrant the controversy she has generated.

For specific reference, here’s what she actually said during her speech in June 2018. Read it very slowly and try to understand the context of her statement.

“I don’t want to hear what a white man has to say about ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ I want to hear what a woman of color, a biracial woman has to say about the film. I want to hear what teenagers think about the film. If you make a movie that is a love letter to women of color, there is a chance that a woman of color does not have access to review and critique your film. Do not say the talent is not there, because it is.”

Remember, she said these words after learning how little diversity there was among movie critics. Unlike most people, she was actually in a position to do something about it. Being an Oscar winning actress who was poised to join the Marvel Cinematic Universe, her words carry more weight than most.

Even so, those words were construed as racist and sexist, two exceedingly loaded terms that bring out the worst in people, especially on the internet. Never mind the fact that she made clear in her original speech that she did not hate white men. Never mind the fact that she has since clarified her words. She is still being attacked as some angry radical feminist who hates men, especially those who are white.

It would be one thing if she had said outright that white men should be banned from criticizing certain movies. Many celebrities, including a few still relevant today, have said far worse. However, that’s not what Ms. Larson said. She never, at any point, advocated disparaging white men. She didn’t even say that people who hate her movies are racist and sexist, something the “Star Wars” crowd is painfully familiar with.

Again, all Ms. Larson spoke out against was a lack of diversity among film critics. That part is worth emphasizing because it renders the outrage surrounding her statement as utterly absurd. It also makes the targeted attack on the fan reviews for “Captain Marvel” both asinine and misguided.

Even though the movie isn’t out yet, the movie is being targeted with negative comments on Rotten Tomatoes. Since it has only screened for a handful of audiences, it’s unlikely that any of these people actually saw the movie or were inclined to see it in the first place. Some are even claiming that this has already impacted the projected box office for the movie.

Whether that impact manifests remains to be seen, but it’s worth noting that when “Black Panther” was targeted with similar attacks, it failed miserably. At the moment, early reactions to “Captain Marvelhave been glowing so the chances of these attacks hurting the box office are probably minor at best. If the pre-ticket sales are any indication, the movie will likely turn a hefty profit for Marvel and their Disney overlords.

Even if there were an impact, it would be for all the wrong reasons. It would send the message that there’s a large contingent of people who are willing to work together to tank a movie because of comments a celebrity said that had nothing to do with that movie and weren’t the least bit controversial, when taken in context.

In this case, it was simply twisting someone’s comments to make them sseem like they said things that they never said or even implied. Then, those who bought into that narrative simply use that as an excuse to disparage a movie that they haven’t seen. That’s not just absurd, even by the skewed standards of outrage culture. It sends the worst possible message from those who think they’re protecting their favorite movie genre.

It tells the world that they don’t care what a celebrity actually says. They actively look for an excuse to hate someone who doesn’t completely buy into their preferred status quo. It would be one thing if that status quo was just and reasonable, but that’s not the case here.

All Ms. Larson did was advocate for more diversity among film critics. If that is somehow too extreme, then the problem isn’t with her or celebrities like her. It’s with those determined to hate her. There are a lot of issues in the world of celebrities and movies that warrant outrage, but advocating for more diversity in film criticism isn’t one of them.

I can already hear some people typing angry comments stating that if she had said those same words, but changed the demographic to something other than white men, then it would be an issue. However, the fact remains that this isn’t what she said.

It also doesn’t help that Brie Larson identifies as a feminist and that term has become incredibly loaded in recent years. However, she has never embraced the kind of radical rhetoric that other, less likable celebrities have espoused. Until she does, those determined to identify her and “Captain Marvel” as racist, sexist propaganda are only doing themselves and their politics a disservice.

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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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How “Groundhog Day” Helped Make Me A Romance Fan

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Many of us remember the movies, TV shows, novels, comic books, or video games that helped make us fans of a particular genre. They’re often profound moments in our lives, sparking a passion that inspires us to explore a world we didn’t know existed.

Movie buffs have that one movie that made them a fan of film.

Hardcore gamers have that one game that helped make them a fan of video games.

Comic book fanboys have that one comic that inspired them to dress up in elaborate costumes at comic conventions.

For romance fans, it’s no different. There’s often something that sparks our interest and inspires us to explore love, lust, and everything in between. Sometimes, it’s a book. Sometimes, it’s a personal moment. For me, it was a movie. Since today is February 2nd, I think most can already guess which movie I’m talking about.

That’s right. One of the catalysts that inspired my love of romance was the classic Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” While I won’t say it’s the sole reason for me becoming a romantic, seeing this movie marked a turning point for me. It marked the first time I enjoyed a movie because of its romantic sub-plot and not in spite of it. While it wouldn’t be the last, its impact is still special.

To appreciate that impact, I need to get a little personal about when I saw this movie and how it affected me. I didn’t see this movie when it was out in theaters. At the time, I was still somewhat of a kid. I say somewhat because I was at that point of childhood where people stop treating you like a baby and start preparing you for adulthood.

That also happens to be the time when your media consumption starts to diversify. It’s no longer cartoons and Disney movies. You finally start to watch other TV shows and movies with more mature themes. You don’t make the leap to R-rated, but you’re at a point where singing animals and distressed princesses just aren’t cutting it anymore.

It’s here where I need to give credit and thanks to my awesome mother, which I’ve done before. While my father helped me take sports more seriously, my mother let me watch some more serious TV shows and movies with her. Again, it was nothing too extreme. It was mostly prime-time shows like “Seinfeld” and “The Simpsons.”

While those shows had some appeal to me, they didn’t have too great an impact. Then, one fateful day, I sat down to watch “Groundhog Day” with her. My mom loved the movie and I was already a fan of Bill Murray after “Ghostbusters.” It was just a perfect confluence of circumstances that went onto have a profound impact, even by Bill Murray standards.

For the first time in my life, I watched a movie where the love story didn’t follow the typical Disney formula. More importantly, it was a love story that didn’t bore or disinterest me. I found myself genuinely intrigued by Phil Connors’ adventures in his time loop and how Rita ended up being the key to helping him escape.

I watched as this eccentric character that only Bill Murray could play go from an egotistical asshole to someone capable of genuine love. I’d never seen that kind of character evolution before. On top of that, I’d never seen a female character as likable and fun as Rita before.

She wasn’t just some generic love interest.

She wasn’t just there to give Phil an emotional sub-plot.

She was a well-developed, complex character who I could root for as much as Phil in the end.

For a kid my age, this was an incredible concept that I found myself appreciating more than most. I had friends and relatives my age who liked the movie too, but not in the same way I did. They appreciated the comedy and the always-endearing charisma that is Bill Murray, but the romance was usually secondary. For me, it helped make the movie special on a very personal level.

Charisma like this appeals to any age.

After seeing “Groundhog Day” and its unique approach to romance, I started to appreciate romantic sub-plots in other mediums. I paid more attention to it in the comics I read. I followed it more closely in the cartoons and TV shows I watched. In time, my interest in romance evolved into a full-blown passion. For that, I’ll always be thankful to this movie, my mother, and Bill Murray.

Even today, I can appreciate the unique way “Groundhog Day” went about telling a love story. Even by modern standards, its brand of romance holds up very well. It avoids many of the standard tropes that often plague modern romance in media.

In the beginning, Phil isn’t romantically interested in Rita. She isn’t interested in him, either. There’s no elaborate plot involving love-at-first-sight or friends-becoming-lovers. Instead, “Groundhog Day” takes a more refined approach. It starts with Phil becoming more interested in Rita, but not entirely in a romantic sense. That comes later and the love is more genuine because of it.

It doesn’t happen all at once. In fact, there’s a brief montage of all the ways Phil fails to win Rita’s love. Given the constraints of the time loop, that’s understandable. However, it’s still heartbreaking for Phil because you get the sense that he wants to love someone. He’s all alone in this temporal purgatory. His ego is no longer enough.

Over the course of the movie, Phil evolves into the kind of person that Rita falls in love with. Towards the end, she begins pursuing him and much as he pursues her. It’s not just about the man proving his worth to a woman, as is often the case in every movie featuring a princess. Their love only becomes real when they both pursue each other.

Even by modern standards, which have become a lot less forgiving, the romance in “Groundhog Day” is remarkably balanced. By the end, you get the sense that Phil and Rita genuinely want to be together for all the right reasons. Being trapped in that time loop made Phil a better person. That person is someone Rita fell in love with. Even as a kid, I thought that was incredibly sweet.

I still remember how much I smiled when I saw that last scene in the movie with Phil and Rita venturing out into the snow together. Only a handful of movies have ever made me smile like that since and “Groundhog Day” was the first to do it through romance. On top of the many other accolades this movie has received over the years, it succeeded on a very personal level with me.

I’ll never know for sure if I would’ve become a romance fan I am today if I hadn’t seen “Groundhog Day.” I tend to believe that I’m the kind of person who would gravitate towards it eventually. However, I don’t doubt for a second that this movie helped shape me into the romantic I am today. For that reason, Groundhog Day, both the holiday and the movie, will hold a special place in my heart.

Thank you, Bill Murray.

Thank you, Andie MacDowell.

Thank you, Harold Ramis.

Thank you, Mom.

Finally, to everyone out there, regardless of whether you’re a romance fan or haven’t seen the movie, Happy Groundhog Day!

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Five Reasons Why Spider-Gwen Deserves Her Own Movie

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It’s a great time to be fan of superhero comics, but it’s especially great if you’re a Spider-Man fan. Even if you’re not a big fan of the superhero genre, it’s hard to deny the prominence of this famous Marvel franchise. Between a successful spin-off movie in “Venom,” the remarkable acclaim for “Into The Spider-Verse,” and the recent trailer for “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” it’s an amazing time for wall-crawler enthusiasts.

At this point, hoping for more is just being greedy. With a sequel to “Venomin the works and other spin-off projects in the pipeline, it almost feels wrong to hope for something specific. Marvel, Sony, and Disney are already giving us so much. What more can they possibly offer?

Well, I’d like to make the case that there is one particular branch of the evolving Spider-Man universe that warrants greater attention. It’s something that was already hinted at within “Into The Spider-Verse” and I feel she could have a greater than any other Spidy-centric media. The timing is right. The market is ripe for her ascension. It’s just a matter of building on foundation that is already rich with potential.

I’m referring to Spider-Woman, also known as Gwen Stacy, but best known as Spider-Gwen. In the mythos of Spider-Man, she’s a fairly recent development. However, her rise to prominence has been nothing short of spectacular and I believe she has done plenty to warrant her own place in the franchise.

Most Spider-Man fans know the name, Gwen Stacy. She has had a prominent place in the Spider-Man comics for decades. However, like Miles Morales, Spider-Gwen emerged in an alternate universe where known characters are different and events unfold differently. Her sequence in “Into The Spider-Verse” offered a brief overview of who she was, but her story is far richer than that.

That story still contains many of the iconic themes associated with Spider-Man. Issues like power, responsibility, and dealing with J. Jonah Jameson are a huge part of Spider-Gwen’s story. However, there are a few distinct variations that help set her apart and it’s because of those traits that I believe she can carry her own movie.

What follows are just a few reasons for why I feel that way. There are probably plenty more that other Spider-Gwen fans will resent me for skipping. I understand and accept that responsibility. Since these are such great times for Spider-Man fans, I like to think we don’t need that many reasons to give someone like Spider-Gwen her own movie.


Reason #1: She Sets Herself Apart From Peter Parker (Aside From Being A Woman)

If the success of “Into The Spider-Verse” taught us anything, other than the inherent appeal of cartoon pigs, it’s that you don’t have to be Peter Parker in order to embody the themes of Spider-Man. Miles Morales did a lot to set himself apart in terms of personality, circumstances, and abilities. Spider-Gwen does plenty of that too, but she takes it even further.

In the world of Spider-Gwen, the story of Gwen Stacy unfolds very differently. She’s not a nerd like Peter. She’s not a biracial teen trying to fit in at a new school. She’s the same sweet girl that Spider-Man fans know from classic stories. That all changes when she gets bit by that radioactive spider instead of Peter.

The Gwen Stacy that emerged after is still Gwen, but she goes about utilizing her powers very differently compared to Peter. They change the way she carries herself. She doesn’t approach them the same way as Peter or other Spider-Man characters. She follows her own path, complete with her own sense of power and responsibility.

Her approach is not radically different from that of Peter Parker, but it still feels distinct. How Gwen becomes Spider-Woman and how this affects her, as a character, is not a story that can be told with Peter Parker, Miles Morales, or any other character, for that matter. The fact she’s a woman at a time when female superheroes have been subject to greater scrutiny is just a nice bonus.

Moreover, the story of Peter Parker has been told and retold many times, already. There have been three distinct timelines with three different actors taking on the role. There’s only so much more that can be done at this point. Gwen Stacy is a different story, but one that’s familiar enough to fit into the greater Spider-Man mythos.


Reason #2: Her Story Brings A Unique Set Of Challenges (Aside From Being A Woman)

Being a masked vigilante is hard. Five decades of Spider-Man comics and three movie franchises have done plenty to establish that. However, Peter Parker never had to deal with being a vigilante while having a cop for a parent. He also never had to be the prime suspect in the death of a friend that he tried desperately to protect.

Those are just some of the challenges Gwen faces throughout her story in the comics. Unlike Peter, she’s not just another high school student trying to balance her personal life with her superhero life. She faces far greater challenges than not having a date to the prom or showing up late to class.

One of her biggest challenges, throughout her story, revolves around being a vigilante while her father, George Stacy, is a cop with the NYPD. On top of that, he’s initially tasked with arresting Spider-Woman because she’s implicated in the death of Peter Parker. Learning that his daughter is Spider-Woman only compounds that challenge.

There’s a lot of drama in that dynamic. If you want to see how it plays out, I strongly recommend checking out the comic series written by Jason Latour. These challenges are things that you won’t find in a Spider-Man story with Peter Parker. Like her counterparts, Gwen bears many burdens and responsibilities, but having a cop for a father only makes it harder.

At a time when the conduct of the police is under more scrutiny than ever, I think a Spider-Gwen movie could explore those conflicts better than most. Beyond giving Gwen different obstacles, it offers a different perspective on what it means to be a hero and how difficult it is to manage when family affairs get involved.


Reason #3: The (Fitting) Tragedy Of Peter Parker In Her World

It’s impossible to tell the story of Spider-Gwen without telling the story of Peter Parker in her world. Her version of Peter is very different in that not getting bit by that radioactive spider sent him down a darker path. His story is one of tragedy, but it’s the kind of tragedy that complements Gwen’s story and fits perfectly with the themes of Spider-Man.

In many respects, Peter fills the role of Uncle Ben in the world of Spider-Gwen, but not in the same way. It’s not a classic case of failing to stop him from getting hurt by a random accident. Gwen actually went out of her way to protect Peter. Getting superpowers actually made that easier for her. She sees him as her friend and wants to help him.

However, in doing so, Peter makes some fateful decisions that result in his death. It’s not just tragic. It’s gut-wrenching for Gwen. She has to watch this boy she cares about die because he wanted to be more like her. She’s very much responsible for what happened to him. On top of that, Spider-Woman is blamed for his death, thanks to shoddy reporting by J. Jonah Jameson.

This version of Peter is powerful in how it twists the classic Spider-Man narrative without warping it entirely. By helping Peter like she did, Gwen ultimately failed him. That’s a different, but effective way to learn the importance of power and responsibility.


Reason #4: She’s Likable In Many Ways (More So Than Peter)

Even in stories where she doesn’t have powers, Gwen Stacy is a genuinely likable character. She’s sweet, fun-loving, and genuine. She’s the kind of girl you can be friends with and/or fall in love with. She’s honest and blunt in how she deals with people. She’s also compassionate and understanding. Getting superpowers only enhances these traits.

What we saw in “Into The Spider-Verse” was just a small sample of a much richer persona. Her attitude, as well as her ability to connect with others in awkward situations, is plenty endearing. In the comics, we see this manifest in many other ways. From the way she deals with her father to how she interacts with her band-mates in their all-female band, the Mary Janes, is likable on so many levels.

I would go so far as to argue that she’s a lot more likable than Peter Parker, if only because she’s less prone to brooding and whining. Throughout the comics, she ends up in some pretty rough situations, which include being actively hunted by the NYPD and unable to go home to her father after he learns of her identity. It’s rough, but at no point does she just whine about it.

As sweet as Gwen is, she also has grit. She knows how to endure a lousy situation and when the going gets tough, she finds a way to get stronger. She still messes up along the way. In fact, she messes up a lot in the comics, but she learns from her mistakes and she grows along the way.

I’m not saying Peter Parker hasn’t grown over the years, but even after five decades of comics, cartoons, and movies, his growth tends to regularly stagnate. Every time he seems to move forward with his life, he takes a step back, whether it’s undoing a marriage or losing his billion-dollar company.

Spider-Gwen may not have had as much time to grow and regress, but her story has been allowed to evolve in many ways since her debut. That development is full of opportunities. Even though she has only been web-swinging since 2014, she has plenty of material for a great movie.


Reason #5: Her Story Is Not Bogged Down By Continuity

This is more a logistical issue than anything else. Peter Parker has been around since the Kennedy Administration. His story has years upon years of continuity that effectively shackle him from radical change. I’ve mentioned before how all superheroes are subject to these constraints. I’ve even argued that Spider-Man is more inept than most at dealing with them.

With Spider-Gwen, however, there are far fewer constraints and many potential avenues for growth. Her story, and that of her distinct alternate universe, is in its infancy, relative to other superheroes. She hasn’t been around long enough for complications and retcons to accumulate. She can follow many different paths, both in the comics and in the movies.

One of the common complaints that comic fans will levy against a movie is how closely it follows the source material. Since Peter Parker is such an icon, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. With Spider-Gwen, there isn’t much source material from which to deviate. “Into The Spider-Verse” already captured the basics. A full-fledged Spider-Gwen movie will have plenty of flexibility.

There are plenty of other reasons I could list to justify Spider-Gwen getting her own movie. She’s a great character who embodies unique aspects of the greater Spider-Man mythos. Given the current state of the superhero genre, especially with respect to box office returns, I don’t think Sony, Marvel, and Disney need many to make Spider-Gwen their next success story.

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