Musical consistency – the MCU’s achilles heel

In a world of failed Dark Universes, Amazing Spider-verses, and whatever is going on at DC, the Marvel Cinematic Universe shines as a beacon of success. However, these films aren’t infallible and often come under criticism for being too formulaic and safe in their storytelling. I disagree, but that’s a topic for another day. No, where the MCU falls down in my mind is in one of the cornerstones of technical filmmaking, and what was formally a genre defining element of the superhero aesthetic – leitmotif.

For those who don’t know, a leitmotif is defined as:

‘A recurrent theme throughout a musical or literary composition, associated with a particular person, idea, or situation.’

The Imperial March, for example is both a leitmotif for Darth Vader, and the Empire. Leitmotif is a really useful tool to drive audience investment, helping to establish a connection with characters that in turn makes key story beats hit harder. Some examples of leitmotif done well can be found in two seminal tv shows with appalling endings: Game of Thrones and LOST. Thrones composer Ramin Djawadi crafts distinctive themes for the houses of Westeros, as well as other important groups like the Dothraki and the Unsullied. The result is a powerful suite that allows for variations on a central group of characters. For example, in a low moment, such as the death of Ned Stark, the House Stark theme is used as a sombre device to reflect the family’s grief. The result is a quiet version using mainly strings at a slower pace.

 

Yet, when the family are victorious, the theme is used again in a more uplifting manner, with a full choir and percussion instruments that suggest battle readiness and victory.

 

LOST composer Michael Giacchino introduces leitmotifs for every main character (and there are a lot of them) from as early as the pilot episode. The result is a musical continuity that spans across six seasons, making the emotional moments more beautiful, more painful, and more impactful.

Charlie, everyone’s favourite heroin addicted Manc with a heart of gold, is associated with the above theme from the beginning of season one, where it’s mainly used as a motif for his drug cravings. Through a beautifully written character arc, he comes to terms with who he is, beats his addiction and ultimately sacrifices himself for the good of the other survivors. The resulting scene uses a blend of Giacchino’s ‘Life and Death’ motif used when (shocker) a character is born or dies, combined with Charlie’s addiction theme layered over the top. This makes for a compelling death that carries more subconscious emotional weight because of prior association with that piece of music.

Now, on to Marvel. Previously, the leitmotif had been the bread and butter of the superhero genre. Danny Elfman employed them extensively throughout the scoring of the Batman and Spiderman franchises respectively, making for rich musical experiences that had suitable motifs for characters, themes, and even buildings. Hell, even the X-Men franchise through all of its non existent continuity managed to keep a consistent main theme for the team (edit: this point is ruined post Dark Phoenix, thanks again Dark Phoenix for ruining everything).

Yet, musical consistency has constantly evaded the most profitable superhero franchise of all time, the 22 film (at the time of writing) strong Marvel Cinematic Universe. Almost every film employs a new director, and with that, a new composer, creating a thematic disconnect in a franchise that in every other regard, values consistency as its MO. The only exceptions are in sequels, and even that isn’t a hard and fast rule. Alan Silvestri composes the original Captain America score, yet none of the sequels, and is at the helm of Avengers 1, 3 and 4, yet franchise black sheep Age of Ultron is palmed off to a collaboration between Elfman and Brian Tyler (remember those names). You can see the full list of composers here:

https://www.imdb.com/list/ls063508458/

As a result of this disconnect, individual characters have leitmotifs introduced in their solo films, only to have them disregarded in subsequent movies. The most heinous example comes from the Guardians of the Galaxy main theme, which almost acts as a space operatic interpretation of the main Avengers cue. This theme goes completely unused in the team’s first crossover with the Earth based MCU heroes during Infinity War, which is endlessly frustrating. Other examples such as Tyler’s fantastic Iron Man 3 theme and Michael Giachinno’s Spiderman: Homecoming and Dr. Strange leitmotifs are also painfully absent. In fact, the duo of films that culminate the Infinity Saga, Infinity War and Endgame feature almost no musical continuity with the past films, except Captain America’s leitmotif (shocker, as Silvestri composed it), and of course…

The only piece of music that everyone at Marvel can seem to agree on, Alan Silvestri’s admittedly incredible Avengers theme is almost the only example of a film spanning leitmotif throughout the MCU. The Avengers theme may as well be the anthem of the MCU, as it features not only in Avengers, Infinity War, Endgame, and a reworked version for Age of Ultron, but it also pops up in Ant Man, Spiderman Homecoming, and Captain Marvel. Here it is in Ant Man at about the 50 second mark.

If the Avengers theme deserves to endure across films, why not other character based leitmotifs? Well, despite the apparent disinterest in any kind of musical continuity, a duo of composers shine through in understanding the importance. Mr. Danny Elfman and Mr. Brian Tyler, please take a bow. Though Age of Ultron is undeniably the weakest Avengers film, it has what the others lack; character leitmotifs from prior films! Captain America’s theme, Tony’s Iron Man 3 theme, Thor’s Dark World theme, and the Avengers theme all reappear to remind you that these characters do indeed come from a wider universe. Here’s a neat video showing all examples thus far. The Age of Ultron comparisons start at 2:37.

So, with the Infinity Saga complete and Thanos dusted, will phase four finally see a consistent use of character leitmotif? Probably not. Though Marvel seems to learn from its mistakes, there just isn’t the outcry for consistent compositions, bar from whiney film and Marvel nerds such as myself writing blog posts that no one will read. The answer isn’t just to hire one composer for every film, that would be insane. (Though I’ll link a video showing if Silvestri had scored Guardians of the Galaxy below, because it’s super neat). No, all Kevin Feige and company need to ensure is that when a new composer is hired, they adhere to prior leitmotifs established for individual characters. In fact, the best way forward might be to hire a specific composer for each franchise, for maximum coherency. Moments like the return of a fan favourite character will be made much more impactful in future films if they’re accompanied by a recognisable theme that has endured in the fan’s minds for years. People appreciate these technical touches, you need only look at the reaction to the return of the iconic Elfman Batman theme in the abomination of cinema that is Justice League for proof.

Sadly, this just doesn’t seem a priority for Marvel currently, and well, that’s a shame.

Avengers: Endgame (SPOILER FREE) review (2019)

‘The most ambitious crossover in cinema history.’ Well, they’re not wrong.

It’s frankly impossible to talk about Avengers Endgame without the eleven years of context across 22, now 23 movies. For years, Kevin Feige and co have been giving comic book fans everywhere a loving interpretation of the heroes they love, on the big screen. While Infinity War broke new ground last year, the final hour of Endgame is a Marvel comics fan’s wet dream. Fan service is everywhere, and what is put to screen (trying to be vague here), is truly, a marvel.

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It’s very difficult to discuss this film without giving anything away, due to the clever marketing that revealed so little. What I can say, is that it sticks the landing. Plot threads from almost every prior film are wrapped up in a way that is both emotionally resonant, and somehow entirely satisfying. That said, there is the odd writing choice. Certain characters are vastly different than they were in Infinity War, and not all of these changes work, in my humble opinion.

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The pacing is also a bit more sluggish than it was in Infinity War. While never boring, it doesn’t move quite as quickly, though the character development that is given focus is arguably worth it. Alan Silvestri’s score continues to amaze, with some lovely leitmotif callbacks to several Marvel movies: something the studio doesn’t usually excel at.

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Overall, Avengers Endgame delivers on its own hype. Directors the Russo Brothers have crafted an ending that is not only wholly satisfying in filmmaking terms, but also gives the loyal fans almost exactly what they want. It’s not as tight as Infinity War, but it has just as much heart. The last third alone make it a milestone in superhero history, and the final battle is one of the most jaw dropping scenes in movie history. Short answer: go and see it.

★★★★★

 

 

Ranking the MCU movies (March 2018)

Cast your mind back to 2008; a simpler time. Well, in the world of movies anyway. Amidst the launch of the original iPhone and the start of the presidency of a man who isn’t completely insane, the film world was doing just fine.  The superhero film in particular was a well established sub-genre, with box office sensations like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies, the X Men series and most critically, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series (at the time, a duo yet to be concluded by the wet fart of a trilogy capper). Yet in the same year that The Dark Knight set a new standard for the level of quality, something was happening that would completely change the landscape for how blockbuster films would be conceptualised for a decade to come. We just didn’t know it at the time. Director Jon Favreau created Iron Man, a movie adaption of a fairly B list comic book character, casting a leading man with a notorious past and who was in need of a second wind, career wise. Everyone thought that The Dark Knight would beat Iron Man both critically and commercially and you know what? They were right. But here’s the thing: DC won the battle, but Marvel won the war, and continue to demolish their direct competition at every hurdle. Through the crafting of an intricate connected universe, EVERYBODY now wants to emulate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why do you think we have the DCEU, the Universal Dark Universe, a wider Transformers universe, multiple Star Wars films, a Ghostbusters universe and literally dozens of others. Its because Marvel and therefore Disney, have made billions from this model and now have the creative freedom to take obscure comic book characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther and turn them into roaring success stories. This is largely due to the leadership of producer Kevin Feige, a man I admire to no end. So as we lead up to the culmination of ten years of groundwork, and not just the films, but multiple short films, movie based comics and shared universe Netflix shows, lets examine the eighteen (yes really!) movies that have been produced at the time of writing by ranking them in terms of overall quality and enjoyment. As my intro was far longer than I intended, I’ll keep each section pretty succinct and just focus on the main headlines for each.

18. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Easily the weakest; incredibly dull and forgettable with the worst villain in the MCU (and that’s saying something!) Most people forget it exists and to be honest, I can’t blame most people. It adds nothing to the overall Infinity War storyline and doesn’t even work as its own movie so my advice is to skip it. More like ‘Thor: The Dark BORE’ am I right? Am I right? Sorry.

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17. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

A Mark Ruffalo-less Hulk film that was pretty standard for the representation of Hulk in film at the time- ie he is ‘big, dumb, green and runs away from tanks.’ Its run of the mill and doesn’t try anything hugely interesting, but it isn’t awful. Fairly decent villain, dull love interest and I’m not a huge fan of Edward Norton in this role. Again, pretty forgettable.

16. Iron Man 2 (2010)

Most people’s least favourite. It introduces War Machine which is cool, but suffers from terrible pacing and a seriously underdeveloped and under utilised villain. Consistent solid performances from the leads and the introduction of Black Widow to the MCU, push this one just slightly above the other two for me.

15. Thor (2011)

It was early days and these films were trying to find their feet, so I cut most of the phase one films some slack. Thor isn’t bad at all- the casting is spot on and the direction and depiction of Asgard is stunning. It also introduced us to the second best MCU villain, so props for that. Alas, its been eclipsed by a far, far greater sequel. No, not ‘The Dark Bore’, we’ll get to Ragnarok later…

14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Another film finding its feet and thus suffers for having to establish so much in one solo movie: Howard Stark, the Tesseract, Cap himself, Bucky, Peggy Carter, Red Skull, Vibranium, the list goes on. The point is, there’s a lot going on here that the film needs to juggle. To its credit, it does it pretty well but again, becomes largely eclipsed by two stunning sequels that just do everything better.

13. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Most peoples other least favourite, but I think it gets a bad wrap for being worse than it is. It has excellent character development for Tony Stark that makes sense in a post-Avengers world and a great score, which is more than most MCU movies can claim. Sadly, a weak pull of the rug twist and an even weaker villain stop this one from soaring any higher. The Christmas setting and Dora the Explorer watch are both amazing though.

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12. Dr Strange (2016)

I’m sure having this one this high up the list will be controversial. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie a lot, I just didn’t love it. Cumberbatch is a great Dr. Strange, but the villain is the weakest since Thor: The Dark World. Casting Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest actors going as the villain and then writing a character so two dimensional he’s practically flat is unforgivable. For shame, Marvel.

11. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Another one that people seemed to love that I just liked. I like Tom Holland in the role and loved Michael Keaton as The Vulture, but the rest of the film kind of dragged for me. Some great action scenes and a cool ‘breakfast club comedy’ kind of vibe aside, this one is still just good, not great, in my opinion. I like what they’re doing compared to the Amazing series travesty, but give me the original Sam Raimi trilogy any day.

10. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah, the sequel that could just never live up to the hype. After The Avengers stunned audiences, Joss Whedon was under immense pressure to capture that same magic again. Alas, the result is more so-so than the original, but still a great blockbuster. The decision to make Ultron a more comedic presence is rather puzzling, but the voice acting chops of James Spader redeem it. The stunning team dynamic pulls this one forward for me, with the banter and chemistry between many now well established characters driving some of the more excellent scenes.

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9. Iron Man (2008)

The one that started it all, propelling both Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark out of the depths of obscurity and into household names. Iron Man is still a solid movie with great pacing, excellent casting and a brilliant retelling of what could easily be a pretty clunky origin story. The standard of weak Marvel villains to come is somewhat set by Obadiah Stane, but as the first film in the series and an origin movie, that can be overlooked simply because the rest of the film is still so tight.

8. Ant Man (2015)

This could potentially be another controversial pick due to it beating out other solo movies like Dr. Strange and Spiderman: Homecoming, but in my opinion, Ant Man sets and achieves its goals with more success. It establishes a key cast of characters and makes them likeable and memorable from the get go. It provides a new genre for the MCU to take on with a heist premise and it uses the gimmick of the film (things getting smaller or bigger) in amusing and creative ways. All in all, its a pretty awesome flick. Oh, but the villain sucks. SHOCKER.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

This was the turning point for Marvel: a risk that other studios would’ve never taken in a million years, no matter how successful their films were. But Kevin knew better and produced, alongside director James Gunn, one of the most fun films we’ve seen from the studio yet, whilst simultaneously expanding the universe quite literally into the stars. The spot on casting of the team, the seamlessly integrated retro soundtrack and the consistent tone make this film a favourite of mine. Can you guess the weak link? It starts with a v and ends with an -illain.

6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Essentially an ‘Avengers 2.5’, Civil War takes its namesake and basic gist from the widely successful comic book of the same name. Obviously the only thing it really takes is the concept of ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ as the conflict is based on events from previous movies rather than secret identities. The juggling of characters is insanely well handled and the film does a good job in making both sides of the argument compelling to really illustrate the tragedy by the time you get to the final fight. The movie handles previous continuity of The Winter Soldier perfectly and introduces new fan favourite Black Panther nicely. It also marks the triumphant return of Spiderman to the MCU, with perhaps the best casting for the wall crawler ever in actual teenager Tom Holland. I look forward to seeing what directors The Russo brothers do with Infinity War.

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5. Black Panther (2018)

The newest MCU movie on the list is also one of their best. There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already said as the box office and critical reception has been insane. The use of a mainly black cast is so appropriate and such a big step forward for Hollywood that Black Panther gains props outside of the movie as much as it does with its excellent content. The film itself owes a lot to the James Bond series and again tackles an expanding world for Marvel by introducing us formally to Wakanda. It also contains the single greatest MCU villain we’ve seen yet, perfectly captured in the angry and determined weight of Michael B Jordan’s incredible performance. Yes, I think he’s better than Loki.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If Ant Man is a heist movie, then The Winter Soldier is a 70s spy flick. Everyone was blown away that a movie about Captain America, the boyscout of the Avengers could be this good. Sebastian Stan brings a terrific performance as the titular Winter Soldier, being genuinely intimidating at times as well as sympathetic. Robert Redford also makes for a great un super powered antagonist. Throw in Nick Fury, Black Widow and lame newcomer, Falcon and you’ve got one of the slickest solo movies we’ve seen yet.

3. The Avengers (2012)

The first culmination of the MCU also remains the tightest team up so far. Despite a fairly generic plot, the juggling of characters, organic relationships and excellent antagonist make this one of the best and most exciting adventures the studio has put out yet. It laid the groundwork for every film to come since and has become the gold standard for how to combine your solo films into one truly epic team up. Justice League take note. It also ties in nicely to the Infinity War storyline, giving us our first glimpse of Thanos in the end credits, even if 90% of the audience at the time had no idea who he was, its still hype as hell.

2. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

The biggest surprise on the list yet, Thor: Ragnarok can only be described as a breath of fresh air. After a pretty good origin movie followed by the dullest MCU movie yet, Thor needed a big break. Thank Odin, he got one, with this weird comedy/buddy cop/road trip/gladiator/space opera epic. Completely flipping our perceptions of these characters on their head, director Taika Waititi showed us the first glimpse that the MCU would need to adapt and evolve in order to stay fresh and exciting, not being able to just repeat the same movie every time. Taking more from Planet Hulk than the actual Ragnarok storyline, the inclusion of fan favourite, Hulk, also made this particularly special. Throw in Loki, the amazingly camp and hilarious Grandmaster and a semi-good villain in Cate Blanchett’s Hela and you have one ‘Hela’ fun ride. See what I did there?

1.  Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

Damn, 2017 was a good year for the MCU. This is a potentially jarring pick for the number one spot and I may be slightly bias in that its one of few on the list that I was able to see on a proper cinema screen in IMAX. However, theres no denying that this film completely achieves its objectives. It manages to capture the spirit of the first film without feeling like a retread. It moves the story forward and further develops every single one of the team. Rocket and Star Lord must overcome their ego (little Marvel joke for you there), Gamora must settle differences with adopted sister Nebula, Drax befriends a new alien and Groot is reborn as a tiny baby twig. The show stealers are the two ‘fathers’ of Peter Quill though; EGO, the living planet who gets third place in the MCU villain rankings and Yondu, a previously one note character who provides one of the few tearjerkers in the series. Add to that another stunning retro soundtrack and some epic visuals, with a slightly darker, Empire Strikes Back esque tone and you have, in my opinion, the finest film that the MCU has produced to date.

Ranking the MCU movies (November 2018)

Last time I did a big spiel here about the influence these movies have had on cinema, blockbusters, the way film universes are created blah blah blah. We just want to get to the ranking, right? So let’s get to it. Here’s March 2018 if you missed it.

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Easily the weakest; incredibly dull and forgettable with the worst villain in the MCU (and that’s saying something!) Most people forget it exists and to be honest, I can’t blame most people. It adds nothing to the overall Infinity War storyline and doesn’t even work as its own movie so my advice is to skip it. More like ‘Thor: The Dark BORE’ am I right? Am I right? Sorry.

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19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

A Mark Ruffalo-less Hulk film that was pretty standard for the representation of Hulk in film at the time- ie he is ‘big, dumb, green and runs away from tanks.’ Its run of the mill and doesn’t try anything hugely interesting, but it isn’t awful. Fairly decent villain, dull love interest and I’m not a huge fan of Edward Norton in this role. Again, pretty forgettable.

18. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This tends to be most people’s least favourite. It introduces War Machine which is cool, but suffers from terrible pacing and a seriously underdeveloped and under utilised villain. Consistent solid performances from the leads and the introduction of Black Widow to the MCU, push this one just slightly above the other two for me.

17. Thor (2011)

It was early days and these films were trying to find their feet, so I cut most of the phase one films some slack. Thor isn’t bad at all- the casting is spot on and the direction and depiction of Asgard is stunning. It also introduced us to the second best MCU villain, so props for that. Alas, it’s been eclipsed by a far, far greater sequel. No, not ‘The Dark Bore’, we’ll get to Ragnarok later…

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Another film trying to find its feet and suffering by having to establish so much in one solo movie: Howard Stark, the Tesseract, Cap himself, Bucky, Peggy Carter, Red Skull, Vibranium, the list goes on. The point is, there’s a lot going on here that the film needs to juggle. To its credit, it does it pretty well but again, becomes largely eclipsed by two stunning sequels that just do everything better.

15. Dr Strange (2016)

I’m sure having this one this high up the list will be controversial. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie a lot, I just didn’t love it. Cumberbatch is a great Dr. Strange, but the villain is the weakest since Thor: The Dark World. Casting Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest actors going as the villain and then writing a character so two dimensional he’s practically flat is unforgivable. For shame, Marvel.

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14. Ant Man and The Wasp (2018)

This pint sized flick had the insane challenge of following Infinity War and unfortunately, came across pretty mediocre as a result. I still love the casting of Hank, Scott and Hope and the size changing gimmicks are fun, but it just feels a little safe compared to the other more recent additions. The villain has no excuse to be this bland following Killmonger, The Grandmaster and Thanos showing that Marvel can actually make compelling villains. Watch the last five minutes on Youtube, otherwise skip it.

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah, the sequel that could just never live up to the hype. After The Avengers stunned audiences, Joss Whedon was under immense pressure to capture that same magic again. Alas, the result is more so-so than the original, but still a great blockbuster. The decision to make Ultron a more comedic presence is rather puzzling, but the voice acting chops of James Spader redeem it. The stunning team dynamic pulls this one forward for me, with the banter and chemistry between many now well established characters driving some of the more excellent scenes.

12. Ant Man (2015)

This used to be higher on my list, but sadly following a re watch, hasn’t aged too well. Still, it’s a fun ride despite being more than a little generic and Ant Man sets achieves more than it fails. It establishes a key cast of characters and makes them likeable and memorable from the get go. It provides a new genre for the MCU to take on with a heist premise and it uses the gimmick of the film (things getting smaller or bigger) in amusing and creative ways. All in all, its a pretty awesome flick. Oh, but the villain sucks. SHOCKER. Speaking of ‘The Shocker’…

11. Iron Man (2008)

The one that started it all, propelling both Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark out of the depths of obscurity and into household names. Iron Man is still a solid movie with great pacing, excellent casting and a brilliant retelling of what could easily be a pretty clunky origin story. The standard of weak Marvel villains to come is somewhat set by Obadiah Stane, but as the first film in the series and an origin movie, that can be overlooked simply because the rest of the film is still so tight.

10. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Another one that people seemed to love that I found just ok. I like Tom Holland in the role and loved Michael Keaton as The Vulture, but the rest of the film kind of dragged for me. Some great action scenes and a cool ‘breakfast club comedy’ kind of vibe aside, this one has grown on me over time. I didn’t fall in love with it straight away, but now appreciate the lighter tone, compelling villain and an actually young Spiderman. I dig this waaaaay more than the Amazing series travesty, but give me the original Sam Raimi trilogy any day. It’s all about Maguire, people.

Spiderman-Homecoming

9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

This was the turning point for Marvel: a risk that other studios would’ve never taken in a million years, no matter how successful their films were. But Kevin knew better and produced, alongside director James Gunn, one of the most fun films we’ve seen from the studio yet, whilst simultaneously expanding the universe quite literally into the stars. The spot on casting of the team, the seamlessly integrated retro soundtrack and the consistent tone make this film a favourite of mine. Can you guess the weak link? It starts with a v and ends with an -illain.

8. Iron Man 3 (2013)

I LOVE IRON MAN 3 AND I WILL NOT APOLOGISE. I know a lot of people hate this one and I used to be one of you people. But guys, it’s actually just plain fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, has great comic book action, a strong cast, and feels like its own story, rather than a retread.  Not to mention excellent character development for Tony Stark that makes sense in a post-‘Avengers’ world and a really upbeat and memorable score, which is more than most MCU movies can claim. Putting aside the weak pull of the rug twist and an even weaker villain, it’s a really great time. And who can forget the Christmas setting and Dora the Explorer watch? Come on. Those are some banging writing choices.

7. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Essentially ‘Avengers 2.5’, Civil War takes its namesake and basic gist from the widely successful comic book of the same name. Obviously the only thing it really takes is the concept of ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ as the conflict is based on events from previous movies rather than secret identities. The juggling of characters is insanely well handled and the film does a good job in making both sides of the argument compelling to really illustrate the tragedy by the time you get to the final fight. The movie handles previous continuity of The Winter Soldier perfectly and introduces new fan favourite Black Panther nicely. It also marks the triumphant return of Spiderman to the MCU, with perhaps the best casting for the wall crawler ever in actually teenaged, Tom Holland.

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6. Black Panther (2018)

There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already said as the box office and critical reception has been insane. The use of a mainly black cast is so appropriate and such a big step forward for Hollywood that Black Panther gains props outside of the movie as much as it does with its excellent content. The film itself owes a lot to the James Bond series and again tackles an expanding world for Marvel by introducing us formally to Wakanda. It also contains the second greatest MCU villain we’ve seen yet, perfectly captured in the angry and determined weight of Michael B Jordan’s stunning performance.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If Ant Man is a heist movie, then The Winter Soldier is a 70s spy flick. Everyone was blown away that a movie about Captain America, the boy-scout of the Avengers could be this good. Sebastian Stan brings a terrific performance as the titular Winter Soldier, being genuinely intimidating at times as well as sympathetic. Robert Redford also makes for a great un super powered antagonist. Throw in Nick Fury, Black Widow and sadly lame newcomer, Falcon and you’ve got one of the slickest solo movies we’ve seen yet.

4. The Avengers (2012)

The first culmination of the MCU also remains the tightest team up so far. Despite a fairly generic plot, the juggling of characters, organic relationships and excellent antagonist make this one of the best and most exciting adventures the studio has put out yet. It laid the groundwork for every film to come since and has become the gold standard for how to combine your solo films into one truly epic team up. Justice League take note. It also ties in nicely to the Infinity War storyline, giving us our first glimpse of Thanos in the end credits, even if 90% of the audience at the time had no idea who he was, its still hype as hell.

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3. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

The biggest surprise on the list yet, Thor: Ragnarok can only be described as a breath of fresh air. After a pretty good origin movie followed by the dullest MCU movie yet, Thor needed a big break. Thank Odin, he got one, with this weird comedy/buddy cop/road trip/gladiator/space opera epic. Completely flipping our perceptions of these characters on their head, director Taika Waititi showed us the first glimpse that the MCU would need to adapt and evolve in order to stay fresh and exciting, not being able to just repeat the same movie every time. Taking more from Planet Hulk than the actual Ragnarok storyline, the inclusion of fan favourite Hulk, also made this particularly special. Throw in Loki, the amazingly camp and hilarious Grandmaster and a semi-good villain in Cate Blanchett’s Hela and you have one ‘Hela’ fun ride. See what I did there?

2. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

Damn, 2017 was a good year for the MCU. There is no denying that this is a stunning sequel. It manages to capture the spirit of the first film without feeling like a retread. It moves the story forward and further develops every single one of the team. Rocket and Star Lord must overcome their ego (little Marvel joke for you there), Gamora must settle differences with adopted sister Nebula, Drax befriends a new alien and Groot is reborn as a tiny baby twig. The show stealers are the two ‘fathers’ of Peter Quill though; EGO, the living planet who gets third place in the MCU villain rankings and Yondu, a previously one note character who provides one of the few tearjerkers in the series. Add to that another stunning retro soundtrack and some epic visuals, with a slightly darker, Empire Strikes Back esque tone and you have, in my opinion, the finest film that the MCU has produced to date. OR, I would’ve said that, bar one little thing…

1. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

You know it is. Almost unanimously hailed as the finest entry in the series, the Russo Brothers did the impossible, combining a cast of over twenty characters into one engaging film that is completely compelling. Everyone has at least a moment to shine (even Falcon, who everyone hates) and unbelievably very few characters are missing. It has the bleakest tone yet, but somehow still manages to seem fun, memorable and enjoyable. The ending is one of the most daring moves ever taken, even if it’ll almost certainly be completely undone. And Thanos, oh Thanos. Josh Brolin is simply perfect and is by far the most compelling MCU villain yet. I even forget that he’s CGI sometimes as the rendering is so lifelike, which is such a rarity in itself. All in all, this is it. The tenth anniversary of the MCU could not have been more perfect. Now let’s see if it can be topped in 2019…

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) review

A pretty common criticism of phase one of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe for all you casuals) was that formulaic nature of each of the films. As they were all origin stories, it was a clear pattern: hero discovers/gains their power, love interest, friend who turns into an evil variation of the hero defeated, cue post credits Sam Jackson foreshadowing the hell out of the future team up; Boom, done. If there is anything that ‘Thor Ragnarok’ isn’t, it’s being bound by the common tropes of existing Marvel films. The third instalment of the ‘Thor’ franchises is so far removed from its decent first instalment and bland sequel, that it almost seems like a different IP altogether.

   In many ways, things are familiar; the core cast of characters has many familiar faces, with the addition of a one or two new ones including Cate Blanchett’s wonderfully hammy Goddess of death, Hera. It’s no secret that Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner also returning are Thor’s brother and father, Loki and Odin, played by British national treasures Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins respectively. However, the names of these characters are where the similarities with previous films end. Every single character here seems like a weird, alternate reality version of themselves. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just an odd choice. Chris Hemsworth’s Thor for example is now silly, arrogant and partial cracking one liners, killing tension at the drop of a hammer. Bruce Banner, one of Marvel’s most tragic, complex and tortured characters is now a jittery, spaced out oddball more reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor from that terrible DC film we don’t talk about. I suppose the argument can be made that he’s shock and prolonged Hulk transformation have this effect, but the script seems to turn the two leads into a petty, arguing married couple rather than allow for the weight that a story like ‘Ragnarok’ should bring.

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   However, if there’s one thing that director Taika Waititi excels at, its pace. The film is nonstop excitement, which is often, it must be said, at the expense of the plot. While certainly not dull, the story being told here is quite frankly, a mess. The inclusion of the Hulk is welcome and there are certainly some excellent elements, but the lean on comedy makes it a disorganised and clustered collection of ideas, with only some of them landing. However, visually, it’s a Marvel. (See what I did there?). From an Asgard under attack to the new, dusty, junk planet of Sakaar, it’s a feast to the eyes. It’s also refreshing to see these heroes away from Earth for once for almost the entire run. As ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ looks to be centred around Earth, it was nice to get another cosmic adventure before everyone ends up back on our home turf. Speaking of space, I would be remiss to not mention the clear influence of James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ movies present here. While a winning formula for the Guardians, a focus on humour doesn’t land quite as well here, probably because the focus on the funny means that we don’t recognise our leads from their appearances in previous Avenger based romps. Some jokes are indeed excellent and had me laughing out loud, but Marvel in general needs to learn when to take itself seriously and this film is a prime example of not doing that.

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   From everything I’ve said, you probably think I didn’t enjoy ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ but I was thoroughly entertained by it. Putting aside that we were clearly watching ‘Bizzzaro’ versions of Thor, Hulk and Loki, the film does work in its own weird, surreal world. The action, as you’d expect from Marvel, is sensational and it looks the closest to reality that the studio has yet come. The tone is all around fun and if you just take it at face value, it is a lot of fun.It’s clear that everyone involved clearly had a blast making this one and that comes through in the actors performances. Ruffalo and Hemsworth have excellent chemistry and the addition of Tessa Thompson to the cast is welcome and adds a nice new dynamic that boring old Natalie Portman never did. The film also succeeds in presenting a decent villain, another struggle that the studio has fought with for years. Hera has wonderful menace and is presented as a threat on a completely different level to anything we’ve seen yet. Hell, even a living planet wasn’t able to accomplish the things she did, so kudos to the writing staff for that. As said, she does come off pretty hammy and Blanchett is clearly loving the chance to channel her inner Saturday morning cartoon villain. la-et-hc-thor-ragnarok-trailer-20170722-970x545-1

   Finally a mention of the score. In a similar vein to that Netflix tv show I’ve been so obsessed with lately, the film takes an 80’s synth approach to the score. Channeling its cheesy influences, it works well, and the use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’ is awesome and succeeds at pumping up the audience even further for key action scenes.

   All in all, if there was a word to describe ‘Thor: Ragnarok’, it’d be unconventional. It’s a surreal, exhilarating and fast paced thrill ride with stunning visuals and mostly solid humour and action. While MCU purists might be disgruntled by the odd characterisations presented in these strange versions of beloved existing characters, the charming script, strong score and consistently good acting, is enough to keep you invested. Waititi clearly understands Thor and doesn’t fall into the trap of previous instalments of feeling the need to dislodge Thor from his cosmic roots and instead create a ‘fish out of water’ story on Earth. Instead, he allows his title character to fully embrace the goofy side of Marvel’s cosmic universe and without giving anything away, actually ends up changing quite a bit of the mythos ahead of ‘Avengers; Infinity War’ next year. With the Russo brothers directing, I’m sure that the third ‘Avengers’ film will take a grittier and more dramatic tone than this movie and it will be interesting to see if the Hulk and Thor keep the new personality traits introduced. All in all, ‘Thor: Ragnarok’ breaks the mold; the most entertaining Thor by far.

★★★★

Black Panther (2018) review

Is there really anything else like the Marvel Cinematic Universe? It’s a miracle that its even turned out as well as it has. Disney and Marvel Studios have crafted such a perfect representation of the source comics (mostly- *cough* Thor: The Dark World *cough) under the leadership of producer Kevin Feige. It has woven countless stories together and formed a true universe that despite containing aliens, magic and super soldiers, feels real and alive. That said, the MCU isn’t without criticism, often rightly so. Despite excellent characterisation, their films, in particular the solo movies, had begun to feel formulaic and somewhat predictable. The movies often lack a compelling villain and as a personal bug bear; (mostly) lack memorable soundtracks or even leitmotifs or ‘themes’ for characters that could carry from film to film; the obvious exception here being Alan Silverstri’s excellent ‘Avengers theme.’ However, happily, the two most recent Marvel efforts; 2017’s ‘Thor Ragnarok’ and now this years ‘Black Panther’ take these tired tropes and turn them on their head, creating some incredibly fresh concepts and a new standard for MCU movies.

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Marvel has again managed to replicate the underdog success of properties such as ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ and ‘Dr. Strange’ by taking a relatively unknown title in terms of general audience perception and turn them into a household name. ‘Black Panther’ is, simply put, an excellent movie with incredibly well written characters performed by talented actors. Chadwick Boseman shines as the titular ‘Black Panther’ also known as the to be King T’Challa. While I initially thought Boseman played him as a bit too much of a boy scout, he is given the opportunity to demonstrate a wide range of emotional depth as the narrative takes the character through increasing hardship. As a fan of the comic books, seeing this well respected character bought to the screen so perfectly was incredibly satisfying. The supporting cast is also excellent, with better than average development given to Letitia Wright’s Shuri who essentially fills the role of ‘Q’ from the Bond movies, with some welcome levity coming from her relationship with her brother, T’Challa. However, the performance that steals the show is Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger. Despite the ridiculous name (which is explained to be a nickname thankfully), Jordan presents us with the answer to what the MCU has been crying out for for so long: a relatable, complex and well developed villain that feels like the hero’s equal. For so long we’ve had only Tom Hiddleston’s schemey schemer Loki to point to as an example of an memorable and well written MCU villain. Well, those days are over; Killmonger is expertly crafted into the narrative and the beef he has with T’Challa not only feels earned, but frighteningly enough, somewhat justified. While you root for T’Challa as the well developed hero he is, you also find yourself sympathising and understanding Killmonger, which shows a truly three dimensional character, rather the stereotype of an evil mirror image of the hero, which, to be honest, I assumed I’d be getting following the trailers. We’ve seen evil Ant Man, Iron Man, Hulk and Iron Man AGAIN so I wasn’t expecting much. Thankfully my expectations were blown out of the water, with a tragic villain that was both expertly written by writer and director Ryan Coogler, but also wonderfully performed by Jordan. A real highlight of the film.

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It is also worth touching on the narrative structure, which also superseded my expectations. For the first twenty minutes or so it felt very much like a ‘business as usual’ Marvel film: black SUV chase through a city, the odd one liner here and there and the establishment of the setting and the rules of this world. Reusing Andy Serkis’ Klaue from ‘Captain America: Civil War’ further cemented the movies origins as part of the wider universe and made me think we’d be getting another passable, but forgettable solo movie. However, half way through this all changes. Without going into spoiler territory, the film keeps up a strong pace and quickly nosedives into a much more compelling plot that threatens to change the way T’Challa views not only his heritage, but his culture as a whole, again being woven expertly in with the story of Killmonger. It is this element that makes the writing of this film far more successful than most other solo Marvel films and completely subverts the standard formula of what we’ve come to expect from this studio. In the same way that Thor turned the world destroying catastrophe of ‘Ragnarok’ into a hilarious buddy cop adventure movie, so does ‘Black Panther’ elevate the mythos of the Marvel universe to a new level via compelling and even at points, genuinely touching drama and social commentary.

I would of course be remiss to not touch on the social aspect of the movie. With an almost entirely black cast bar the well placed additions of Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman, the film is a milestone in the casting of black actors. Huge praise must be given to Disney for pushing and succeeding in creating a movie like this, that touches on the history of the race in a subtle but impactful way whilst casting some of the most talented black actors working today. The movie examines themes of prejudice, isolation, betrayal, self preservation and heritage wonderfully and uses them to drive the narrative forward in an organic and satisfying way. However, it is also a movie about a secret future city and a man who dresses like a big cat and has claws, so it stays true to its comic book roots, keeping an appropriate level of levity and more humorous moments to balance out the drama. And to touch on that future city; the way that Wakanda has been realised is just incredible. The city feels real, breathing and gives us a real taste of what a place like this might be like. The CGI is well used with some excellent wide shots of the fictional landscape as well as some truly beautiful dream sequences. However, there were times where it looked a bit dodgy and unfinished, which is a shame for a film that nails so much else.

Overall, ‘Black Panther’ is great. I went in expecting to see a fun and entertaining, albeit generic superhero solo movie and left the cinema wanting even more. What could’ve so easily been just another Marvel origin story set to the standard three act structure does something really new and engaging. It perfectly weaves in topical social messaging without being heavy handed by driving these messages through the actions of the truly excellent characters. It manages to create a truly great standalone movie with well rounded characters, a consistent tone and continuity that allows it to fit in perfectly with the rest of the MCU family. Bravo, Marvel; you’ve started 2018 by setting the bar high. Now bring on the hype for seeing all of these characters back in Infinity War in May. I for one, can’t wait.

★★★★

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) review

To quote a great fictional man, ‘there was an idea.’ Never has a movie quote been so appropriate in the context of an idea within its universe and the production of said universe in real life. The idea of establishing four lesser known comic book characters in their own movies that would be largely alien to a mainstream blockbuster audience only to bring them together in one singular event seemed to beg for disaster. But, in hindsight, what almost feels like projecting, the watchful one working eye of Nick Fury in universe and Kevin Feige in our reality both knew that this was a winning idea. As we know 2012’s ‘The Avengers’ was a sensational hit and quickly rose to become the third highest grossing film of all time. So what’s more mad than trying to set up a superhero film that juggles six protagonists, a functioning narrative and an effective villain? Well, how about throwing twenty plus main characters, a narrative that follows three different groups across the galaxy and a totally fresh villain that has no prior film establishment (I’m not counting three minutes in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ as extensive character building). If ‘The Avengers’ was a gamble, then ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is Marvel throwing everything, quite literally, onto the table. With the exception of one shrinking Paul Rudd and a confused normal man who wondered onto set with a bow and arrow for some reason, literally everyone is present here. 

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So, big question: is it any good? Quite amazingly, by some alignment of the stars and the moons (we probably have Thanos to thank for that), this movie somehow manages to live up to the hype and also pay appropriate respect and homage to its previous ten year long legacy. Feige makes a decision worthy of the intellects of Bruce Banner, Shrui and Tony Stark combined by giving directing reigns over to the Russo Brothers, whose previous work for Marvel includes ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Captain America: Civil War’, otherwise known as two movies that are in literally everybody’s ‘Top five MCU films’ lists. The meandering pace, bizarre villain choices and tangents to set up for solo films from Whedon’s underwhelming ‘Age of Ultron’ are firmly abolished here, with the focus being where it should be: Josh Brolin’s Thanos. It has been an excellent year for Marvel villains, as they once again learn from past mistakes and give the ‘Mad Titan’ exactly the right amount of screen time and backstory necessary to make him thoroughly compelling and simultaneously hateable. The true mark of a great villain relies on two things; An understanding (not to be confused with agreement) of their motivations and an incredible on screen presence. The combination of the writing and Josh Brolin’s breath-taking performance achieve this in spades; I genuinely feared for the lives of my favourite characters whenever they came into contact with him.

Though the story is firmly told from the viewpoint of Thanos, the obvious appeal of the movie for any fanboy such as myself comes from the sheer number of heroes in one flick. In the hands of less competent directors, combining the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers and the numerous subsequent heroes and side characters could’ve been more of a disaster than the DC movie universe (cheap shot, sorry.) Thankfully, all of your fAvengersInfinityWaravourite heroes are represented and almost all of them have witty lines and adequate roles to play to drive the story forward. That said, not all heroes are created equally and if I had one criticism, it would be a little too much reliance on the Guardians of the Galaxy and not quite enough love for the likes of core Avengers ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Captain America.’ This is of course a super minor nit-pick and with the state of the universe at the end of the film, I’m sure they’ll have much more prevalence in next years as of yet untitled ‘Avengers 4.’ But we’ll get to that ending later. My other nit-pick regards the generic evil henchmen- ‘The Black Order’ As you might expect, they don’t receive a huge amount of development and despite being pretty tough, are killed off without much consequence. As I say, another minor point as the main villain is so engaging and there is so, so much going on, but I feel that a bit more personality wouldn’t have gone amiss. 

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So if those are my two tiny problems, what did I like about the film? Honestly, nearly everything else. The now well established cast bring their ‘A game’ here, with everyone (except Elizabeth Olsen’s ‘Sokovian’ accent) being on point. Stand outs include Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who honestly just gets better in every movie he’s in. He not only nails the dramatic moments, but his comedic timing rivals even the greatest stand up artists at this point. ‘Sweet Rabbit’ is my new favourite thing and his interactions with the Guardians in general made the Marvel fan boy in my squeal with excitement as well as laugh. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is also amazing here. I was one of the few not actually sold by ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’, but I’m totally on board following a soul destroyingly real death scene. Move over Toby; I have a new favourite Spidey. As I said, there are too many other characters to give individual praise to, but the interactions between our favourite characters weaved in with that trademark Marvel wit, make this a surprisingly humorous affair to begin with, that slowly sits you down and rips out your heart as it brutally murders your childhood heroes… 

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…we best start talking about that ending then. Despite a few early deaths, things seemed all good in the hood for most of the cast and I thought we’d wrap things up with Thanos in some intergalactic prison, with the emotional weight coming from the (very well done and suitably respectful and brutal) deaths of Loki, Gamora and Vision. Not so. After Thor stabs Thanos and he smirks with a reply of ‘you should’ve aimed for the head’, I knew this wasn’t going to be a happy ending. Thanos savagely rips the mind stone from Vision’s head and achieves his goal of wiping out half of the population of the universe. Yep; an MCU movie where the villain wins, without question. The death toll is more akin to the kind of body count Jason Vorehees or Michael Myers (not Austin Powers) tend to rack up; Star Lord, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Black Panther, Falcon, The Winter Soldier, Dr. Strange and even poor Spiderman are all kaput. The movie then ends on a dour note of hopelessness with a cliff-hanger more enticing than ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ It punches you in the gut and is the only Marvel movie to end with a solemn, quiet credits soundtrack to signify the severity of the situation. Now while that is all bleak, it is slightly undercut by the fact that the Marvel diary has already confirmed: ‘Guardians 3’, ‘Spiderman 2’, and ‘Black Panther 2’ post ‘Avengers 4.’ So while I’m sure no one seriously think these flagship characters were dead for good, it does slightly undercut the emotional weight of the scene. While Spidey’s death genuinely nearly got a tear out of me, I was at the same time relieved as I knew that meant this is likely to be undone. It leaves us in an interesting place though, as the remaining Avengers (by no accident) are the core members from phase one with the addition of Rhodey, a few Wakandans and one angry ‘Sweet Rabbit.’ The focus will undoubtedly be on the original team in the follow up and I for one, can’t wait for next summer to see the real conclusion.

 

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It should also be noted that this movie doesn’t waste time introducing newbies to the franchise; quite frankly it doesn’t have the time. It fully expects its audience to be up to date and have knowledge of all previous 18 (!) movies. This also applies to character development as the key dynamics between Tony Stark and Peter Parker for instance are far more compelling with the established relationship from previous flicks. I realise I’ve spent a lot of time talking about plot and not much else in this review, but its such an overwhelming experience that I feel a splurge of information from my brain is the best approach. Taking my fanboy hat off for a second though, it is worth noting the phenomenal production values and stylistic choices. The visuals are more ambitious than any film prior; even the insane, ‘Inception’ style visuals of ‘Dr. Strange’ are dwarfed by one cosmic set piece after another, with the effects highlight being an entire moon being lobbed at Iron Man. I was also very pleased to see the return of Alan Silverstri as composer, who has been absent from the MCU since ‘The Avengers.’ As the composer of easily the most iconic tune in the franchise, it was great to hear his bold, heroic, hype inducing score make a triumphant return here to signal strong character moments. This, balanced with the ominous drone composed as the theme for Thanos really added a lot of weight to the film. One minor (very nerdy) nit-pick, is that I would’ve loved to have heard a reprise of Tyler Bates’ equally excellent motif for the Guardians of the Galaxy when they made their appearance. Motifs are severely lacking in the MCU and it would’ve been equally good to have heard the familiar fanfares for Iron Man and Captain America established previously.

So in conclusion, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is about as amazing a comic book movie that you could ask for. It felt like a true crossover ‘event comic’ come to life. While I still feel that ‘The Dark Knight’, with its compelling themes, complex characters and Oscar worthy acting will always reign supreme as the greatest comic book movie, this movie achieves the seemingly impossible task of juggling so many characters, bringing the pages of a comic book to life and, perhaps most impressively of all, being a satisfying first part of a conclusion to ten years of hype. While it won’t make any great shakes in the Oscars or as a piece of high brow cinema, it isn’t trying to. It knows what it is; a smart action blockbuster and a reward for comic book fans everywhere who have followed and supported Marvel eagerly for the past ten years. Now they have the equally daunting task of finding a satisfying way to conclude this monster of a story. But with Feige, the Russo brothers and the rest of Marvel Studios at the helm, I have every faith that it will just as exhilarating, hilarious and satisfying as this was.

★★★★★

Also pleeeeease, please can this film beat ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’ at the box office? I’d kill to see the look on James Cameron’s pretentious, smug, comic book hating face.

Marvel’s Spiderman (2018) (PlayStation 4) review

Sony has two major properties on their radar that consistently and regularly make them money: the Playstation franchise and ‘Spiderman’, so it seems like no surprise that they decided to marry the two together in an exclusive title by Insomniac Games. After an enormous marketing campaign creating an unparalleled level of hype for playstation gamers, the finished product is finally here and mostly hits the mark on those Marvel fanboy expectations.

Games using the license of superheroes have a history of being largely uninspired cash grabs that put in minimum effort whilst capitalising on the brand name. That was, of course, until 2009’s ‘Batman: Arkham Asylum’, which became the gold standard for how to respectfully use an intellectual property and also making a hella fun game. It’s no surprise then, that ‘Spiderman PS4’ as I’ll be referring to it as, borrows elements from this game and its sequels ‘Arkham City’ and ‘Arkham Knight.’ Most egregious but paradoxically also most forgivable, is its snatching of the genre defining combat system. The combo centric, ‘easy to pick up, difficult to master’ style works just as well for Spidey as it did for Batman. In fact, the use of a warning feature and its lore based explanation of the spider sense arguably makes more sense here. Using combinations of various web attacks, customisable gadgets and upgrading your fighting style with each level up allow the combat to become more in depth and varied as the game progresses, keeping things interesting. The use of webbing within fights feels like a blessing as you temporarily dispose of that goon in the far right corner with a rocket launcher, though it crucially never feels cheap and the difficult spike is fair. (Note: I played on ‘amazing’ mode which is essentially the games ‘normal’ mode.)

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While admittedly I haven’t yet finished it, the games story is standard Spiderman fare, with some nice nods sprinkled in and a few decisions that were clearly made to put the games own stamp on traditional Spiderman lore. For example, the inclusion of a father-son style working relationship between Peter and Dr. Octavius is something rarely examined within the comics, but rather taken directly from the popular ‘Spiderman 2’ (2004). Characterising Dr. Octavius as such a friendly, supportive figure make it all the more devastating as we lead towards the inevitable climax of him becoming a power hungry super-villain. Perhaps most notable though, is Insomniac’s treatment of Mary Jane Watson as they transform a sometimes tired and dull love story into a really likeable, organic and natural romance. (Something the movie adaptions seem to consistently struggle to do). This of course, also stems from the wonderful voice work on Peter himself, who fits the cocky web head persona perfectly here. The writers also clearly understand Spiderman, as his quips feel natural and well thought out.

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The overall presentation of this game is also fantastic. New York looks stunning in HD and the open world environment with no limits is a dream come true for Spider-fans who’ve been waiting for something like this since the surprisingly excellent ‘Spiderman 2’ video game adaption way back in 04. Nods to now familiar locales courtesy of the MCU are also very welcome as we see Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Santorum and the Avengers Tower just to name two of many. The soundtrack is also sometimes subdued, but appropriate. The inventory screen has an other worldly, ambient vibe to it, ditto with the many puzzle mini games (we’ll get to those). The score soars alongside Spidey and the non-diegetic sounds are perfectly placed, as the rush of vocal crescendo is exactly what the player needs to feel invested and excited. The use of a choir in particular make it feel very similar to the Danny Elfman scores of the Sam Raimi trilogy and crucially, makes us feel like we are Spiderman, swinging through the streets. Another excellent addition is the ‘selfie mode’ which does exactly what you’d expect. I love it, see below.

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About that web swinging then…its fantastic. I was at first skeptical as the webs seemed less easy to latch on to buildings than my memory of ‘Spiderman 2’ recalled. However, after about an hour of play, once I’d unlocked a few extra methods and was sporting that sweet, sweet white spider suit from the cover, I couldn’t be stopped. The wall running allows for an amazingly fluid experience as you never have to stop moving and can bounce off and parkour over, any building you swing by. The ability to stop and focus when a crime or objective appears is also made wonderfully easy to achieve with the implementation of L2 and R2 allowing you to quickly hit a pre defined marker and perch from there. Mix this in with an insanely vast upgrade system  and thousands of collectibles to find and you’ve got hours upon hours of open world fun and exploration to have. My one issue comes from aforementioned mini games. They ruin the pace of either the combat or the web slinging and just feel like a relic from decades past that don’t need to be here. The use of ‘Bioshock’ esque circuit breaker puzzles and ‘God of War’ style quick time events make me roll my eyes every time. We don’t need these in games any more people!

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That aside and in review, I love ‘Spiderman PS4.’ The open world exploration is just so fun, the combat and web slinging are beyond on point and the story is…good. Not great, but enjoyable and respectful to Spidey’s long history. The use of familiar mechanics from Insomniac’s own franchise, ‘Ratchet and Clank’ as well as a sprinkling of mechanics taken from the ‘Arkham’ series, make this game a perfect brew of wonderfully realised game mechanics and storytelling. It’s clear that time, love and devotion was given to this game to make it the best experience possible for the player. If the rumours are true and Marvel are indeed giving out licenses of their other superhero IPs to various developers, they wouldn’t go far wrong in taking ‘Spiderman PS4’ as a blueprint for bigger things to come.

9.5/10 – Spectacular.

Venom (2018) review

I try to leave expectations at the door when I go and watch a movie, but I have to admit, that I was prepared to hate ‘Venom.’ The trailers screamed generic, the plot looked run of the mill and the sheer lack of Spider-man mythos seemed to contradict everything the character stood for. I assumed the pacing would be bad, the characters undeveloped and the narrative generic. And while I was pretty much spot on with those assumptions, there was still something really enjoyable about this movie that is difficult to explain.

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As expected, the performance of leading man Tom Hardy, is the film’s greatest strength. Hardy provides great physical comedy as he alternates between down on his luck journalist Eddie Brock and the alien symbiote (who for some reason calls himself Venom before they even bond, but whatever). Both are likeable and the two provide the only real chemistry the film has to offer. Michelle Williams’ Anne Weying for example, is a horrendously boring stereotypical love interest that adds absolutely nothing whilst simultaneously failing to create any chemistry with the notoriously charismatic Hardy. From the moment we meet them, I don’t believe their relationship.

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Riz Ahmed, who was wonderful in 2014’s ‘Nightcrawler’ portrays Carlton Drake, the films villain. Ahmed brings a real engaging energy to the role, but even he can’t save the awful writing and lack of definable motivation that his character is built upon.  Drake ultimately becomes the generic ‘mirror image of the main character’ cliché leading to a predictable, lacklustre climax.

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In terms of tone, pace and style, ‘Venom’ is a total mess. The director can’t seem to decide if he’d rather embrace the character’s darker traits or focus more on his comedic side. The pace drags unbearably up until Brock becomes Venom. In fact, you could remove the first twenty minutes without changing too much of the overall plot. The style is dim and lacks the vibrant colour of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which would be fine if it had a style of its own. It’s not as if the film wants to be genre focused like ‘Logan’ was, for example; it’s just bland. What really fails though, is the writing, which is both super generic and bafflingly silly. Character motivations are all over the shop, the stakes feel far lower than they should and many of the jokes are frankly, awful.

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And yet, the movie left me feeling good. Perhaps I was just in a spontaneously good mood and was in the right frame of mind to enjoy it for what it was: a good-hearted mess. It is certainly far more watchable than something like ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ with its disgusting exposition established purely for the creation of another movie. ‘Venom’ certainly leaves the door open for an inevitable sequel, but it feels self-contained. I think what sold me, however, is the creation of an on-screen Venom that doesn’t take himself seriously. He’s not the broody, sombre, revenge filled monster as in many interpretations, but a loser with a dumb sense of humour. He’s trying to be a cool, cliché antihero, but isn’t. Thus, even the ‘turd in the wind’ line got a laugh out of me, as it works for a Venom who really isn’t a badass killer, but a well-meaning goon who happens to eat people.

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In conclusion, ‘Venom’ is not a very good movie, but it sure is enjoyable. The portrayal of Eddie Brock/Venom by Hardy is hilarious, even if that is unintentional. The action is passable and most everything else is pretty bad. The soundtrack however, was pretty rocking in some places and at least they got the look of Venom spot on. I wasn’t even bothered by his lack of spider symbol because he just looked so cool. If you can turn off your brain and appreciate it for what it is, you might actually have some irreverent fun with it.

★★★

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