Wonder Woman Rescues The DCEU

Alright people, especially you DC fans, breath a sigh of relief. The new film Wonder Woman is actually a rollicking great movie. Most fans know by now that Warner Bros./DC Studios’  DC Extended Universe (DCEU) had very public lately starting with last year and their weak cinematic entries Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad. Many DC fans are in a state of near revolt at how badly the film studio have handled its superhero properties with the last good entry being 2013’s Man of Steel. After the embarrassing behind-the-scenes mishaps, everyone was looking to Wonder Woman to help right the ship for the DCEU. The only problem was that many doubted this new film could do that.

Well, those naysayers have been proven wrong. Wonder Woman is exactly what the DCEU and its fans need right now. Of course, it is not a perfect film. There are issues with pacing in the first half and the film overdoes the slo-mo shots, but on the whole, Wonder Woman is a fun and exciting jolt for moviegoers this summer season.

Diana Prince and Steve Trevor

Taking the best elements from Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, Wonder Woman takes those films’ fish-out-of-water scenario and period setting to create a joyous and unique adventure. Gal Gadot plays the title character of Diana, a super-powerful Amazonian princess raised on a mythical and secluded island populated by warrior women. One day a man washes up on its shores and it’s Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), a Word War I soldier who introduces Diana to the outside world. Both characters go through the funny fish-out-of-water tropes, first with Steve on the island and later with Diana in war-torn Europe.

While these moments were amusing, the film kicks into high-octane and colorful action pieces midway through the film when Diana aka Wonder Woman fights in the war and never lets up. By that point, the action takes over and the film is a stunt and CG fest, but it’s not mindless. The filmmakers wisely gave us time to know the characters so that by the time Wonder Woman is racing through battlefields and taking out German soldiers audiences are fully engaged with her. Not to take away credit from the filmmakers, but Gadot deserves so much acclaim for pulling off this role. In many ways, the casting for Wonder Woman was more critical than other heroes like Batman or Superman. That is because in a field so crowded with male-led superhero films, the character had to grab us from the get-go and Gadot does that quite well. Now she joins the ranks of Christopher Reeve, Hugh Jackman and Robert Downey, Jr. as iconic actors believably portraying superheroes.

As mentioned before, the film has its issues. The villains are merely serviceable and this seems to be a common problem with recent superhero films that place so much focus on the main heroes. Zack Snyder’s influence is felt with the overuse of slo-mo shots, but the action and settings go beyond Snyder. For a DCEU film, Wonder Woman is much more colorful, vibrant and uplifting. But Snyder does deserve praise for seeing something in Gadot when he filmed Batman v Superman and she obviously was one of that film’s highlights. Warner Bros. should also be lauded for believing enough in the character to let her headline her own film.

Wonder-Woman-Gadot

Wonder Woman could not have come at a better time for the DCEU and everyone. Director Patty Jenkins has delivered a fresh and exciting superhero film and has helped restore confidence in the DCEU. It has some ways to go, but at least the bleeding has stopped thanks to Wonder Woman. Seriously, Marvel Studios made a huge mistake in letting her walk off Thor: The Dark World. Her cinematic eye, which is so evident in Wonder Woman, would have made the Thor sequel much more memorable than the standard muscle fest it turned out to be. Do not be surprised if this film’s success will mean that Wonder Woman, the character, will rightfully take her place among the headliners in the DCEU.

Waldermann Rivera

 

The Heart and Soul Of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2


GOTGV2 poster

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 (GOTGV2) is exploding onto screens everywhere and kicks off the summer season with a big blast that goes for the heart. For those keeping count the sequel to the hit film Guardians of the Galaxy is the latest offering from Marvel Studios and its popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).

Like most sequels, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 tries to outdo the original, despite what writer and director James Gunn claims. It does not quite get there but like a true, notable sequel it sets out to be different and in that aspect Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 succeeds so overwhelmingly.

The film takes place shortly after the last film as the Guardians of the Galaxy are doing mercenary work for a galactic civilization called the Sovereign. The opening credits showcase the galactic misfits at their very best and reunite audiences with the loveable bunch. The team includes Earthling Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), former assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the too-literal Drax (Dave Bautista), the cybernetically enhanced Rocket Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and the tiny plant being Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). Right off the bat the adorable Baby Groot steals the spotlight with his oh-so-cute antics as the rest of the Guardians fight this gigantic monster squid thing. His scenes throughout the film will bring many “Awwws” and laughs and sure he is an obvious merchandising wonder, but Baby Groot is just so endearing that only truly embittered grouches will mind him.

baby groot and bomb

As with the previous film, GOTGV2 starts off with a toe-tapping soundtrack of oldies but goodies during the opening credits. The selection of songs is quite good, but unlike the original which featured some rousing classics, the songs for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 are more reflective of the film’s themes.

This film is quite exciting and funny, in fact, many skits and jokes outperform the original. However, one drawback it has when compared to the original is that its main plot meanders at times. There is a story, and it deeply affects our heroes, but GOTGV2 focuses more on character. The plot isn’t as important to the film as is exploring the heart and soul of the Guardians.

Without revealing too much, the Guardians go on the run from the Sovereign because Rocket stole some batteries from them. The Sovereign are a snooty bunch of religious fanatics who are deeply offended that Rocket stole from them and start hunting down the Guardians.

Peter quill and ego

As our heroes evade the Sovereign they also have to deal with their old foes the space pirates called the Ravagers and Peter Quill meets his father, Ego (Kurt Russell). Encountering his father leads to Peter on a journey of self discovery as he learns about his true, half-alien heritage. Meanwhile, the other members of the team come to realize some truths about themselves and how they feel about others. During all this self-reflection the Guardians of the Galaxy stumble upon a terrible revelation that threatens the entire galaxy.

Rocket and baby Groot

Whereas, the first Guardians of the Galaxy was a great big adventure that kept building up to a climax and had a clear villain, this sequel has a different approach. GOTGV2 starts off as another whacky day filled with thrills, jokes and putdowns, but the pace lets up in the middle. This sacrifice in momentum and pace was done to give the characters development that adds dimension to them. It may turn off some people expecting a retread of the first film, but others will appreciate the successful efforts to develop not just the main characters, but returning supporting characters.

The central theme Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 focuses heavily on is that of family and friendship. Peter Quill and the others are given time to reflect on family and what that concept means to them. Sometimes these ponderings and musings are too on the nose and are part of the reason the film’s pace slows, but in the end, they help us to care more about the characters. More importantly their growth as characters are more genuine and earned. On the whole, this different atmosphere gives the film a more mature tone with appropriate heart-tugging moments.

The one standout character who benefits from the film’s tone is the Ravager leader Yondu (well played by Michael Rooker). His character is unexpectedly more developed and he is allowed to show that underneath his tough exterior he has a heart that redeems him. The scenes with him and Rocket run the gamut from hysterically funny to poignant as their souls are laid bare to each other. They make a terrific team and are some of the film’s highlights.

Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Vol-2-Yondu-and-Rocket

Even the film’s villain is given screen time to show different characteristics. Unlike the first film’s one-dimensional Ronan, the villain of GOTGV2, who is eventually revealed later in the film, is a more interesting character which allows the final confrontation with the heroes to feel more personal. The gradual unveiling of the villain is another reason for the sequel’s slower tone, whereas with Ronan it was clear he was the main foe and this kept the Guardians constantly on the edge. Here, the characters contend with lesser villains like the Sovereign, who are as monotone as their gold skin tone and Yondu’s Ravagers. As to how GOTGV2’s main villain measures up is hard to say. The MCU has been criticized for featuring relatively weak villains, but the one featured in Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is more notorious and stands out more.

All told, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is not an inferior sequel. It stands up quite well to the original and is solidly in the upper echelons of the MCU films. It has so much to offer and though it tries a bit too hard to be something different and more introspective it is more heartfelt than the original. The worlds explored, especially Ego’s planet are truly stupendous and otherworldly. Each scene fills the eyes with bizarre colors and images and most of the jokes and sight gags come at the right moment with near-perfect timing. The action scenes are wild and dizzying with terrific special effects and are strengthened by the presence of the beloved characters. Without all the character development the big action pieces, particularly in the final act would have had less impact, and we would have been less emotionally invested in these endearing characters. Each of the main team members are allotted amble screentime to display many nuances from Peter’s insecurity over his attraction to Gamora to Rocket’s caustic act being used as a way to hide his inner pain. There is much more than can be listed here. This is why in the end, James Gunn is validated for spending more screen time on these quieter and pensive moments.

Even though, the film isn’t well connected to the Earth-based MCU, it is bursting with many Marvel Easter eggs and shows many potential stories that can be developed later. It will take more viewings to spot all of them. By the way, be sure to stick around during the credits; there are five post-credit scenes, a couple of which portend to some intriguing new directions for the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. The best throwaway gag involves Marvel Comics legend Stan Lee and his connection to the Marvel Universe.

The best way to think of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 is to compare it to…yes, The Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future, Part II. Both sequels were enjoyable but more serious in tone as is GOTGV2. In time, many have come to embrace both sequels with many feeling that Empire was superior to the first Star Wars. This could happen with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, but that assessment will come in time and after many deserved repeat viewings of this wonderful and emotional film.

José Soto

The Return of Mystery Science Theater 3000!

Fans of the the cult favorite TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 were justifiably upset when it was canceled back in 1999. But now they can rejoice as Netflix has revived the quirky, sci-fi satire for an eleventh season with fourteen new episodes that just started airing.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K) is one of those shows that cannot simply go quietly into the land of cancellation. Ever since it debut on a local TV station, KTMA, back in the late ’80s, the comedy has bounced around Comedy Central then the Sci-Fi Channel until it finally went dark. But its creator Joel Hodgson (who played the lead character Joel in the early seasons) would not let the show be forgotten and tried to revive it. He championed the show over the years and started a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised over $5 million to fund a revival. The result was that new episodes were produced in 2016 and are now available for hungry fans and those curious enough to see what the hoopla is about.

The new MST3K follows the same basic format of the old shows. An average Joe-character (this time it’s Jonah Heston played by Jonah Ray) is trapped in a spaceship by a mad scientist who wants to experiment on him by making him watch really bad genre films. What keeps Jonah Heston from going insane is that he has a group of wise-cracking robots who watch the films with him and together they heckle the films to shreds. As we watch the bad films we see the silhouettes of Jonah and the robots sitting in the front row on the bottom of the screen and we get to hear all their putdowns and puns.

 

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of those shows that is best enjoyed if you can appreciate the fact that it’s actually a celebration of the cheesy side of sci-fi, horror and fantasy. The jokes and commentary are non-stop; some hit, some miss. With that rapid pace, many jokes are topical or may go over the heads of some viewers, but that is part of the fun. Sure, some jokes may become dated (as seen in older episodes), but that’s the way it is.

The show follows the tradition of the previous incarnations in that it uses distinctly below average production values with sets and model effects that are clearly fake. But that is part of its charm and how it tributes the films Jonah and his robot friends make fun of. The only difference is that the villains in this version of MST3K are played by more recognizable actors. Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester (the daughter of the older show’s head villain) and the great Patton Oswalt as Max or TV’s son of TV’s Frank are terrific in their roles. You can tell they’re having a great time playing evildoers, and they have lots of fun torturing poor Jonah Heston. In fact, the ultimate torture for Jonah is that Kinga Forrester tries to force him to marry her in one episode.

Of course, the big draw of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are the films themselves. And boy did they pick a bunch of stinkers who deserve the ribbing! The choices this time are mostly newer films that came from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s like Starcrash, Reptillicus, Carnival Magic, Avalanche and those “classic” Dough McClure epics The Land That Time Forgot and At The Earth’s Core. MST3K must be Edgar Rice Burroughs’ method of getting the last laugh on the last two films that adapted his works! And let me add that the choice of these films makes me feel old because I remember watching a couple of them in theaters back in the day.

The only thing lacking with the new episodes is that the original main heroes (Joel Robinson and Mike Nelson) are absent. But the new MST3K does feature guest appearances by former baddies like Pearl Forrester, Bobo and Observer. Of course, the robots and co-stars from the older episodes, Gypsy, Cambot, Crow and Tom Servo, are co-stars in the revival and pick up right when we last saw them in 1999.

Even though Mystery Science Theater 3000 has been gone for a good while, it’s fantastic that it has been able to pick up where it last left off and continue delivering the laughs. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to finish watching their skewering of At The Earth’s Core, a guilty pleasure of mine.

Waldermann Rivera

The Expanse Pushes Beyond Its Horizon

As its second season draws to a close, it is very clear that The Expanse, arguably the flagship TV series on Syfy, has thrived and become must-see TV.

Based on James S.A. Corey’s series of novels, The Expanse tells several related stories that take place two centuries from now in our solar system as it has been colonized by humanity. From Earth to the the asteroid belt to Jupiter’s moons we see how life is for humans living under different conditions. People living in the Belt deal with harsh conditions and are stigmatized, while those on Mars appear war-like and disdainful of everyone else, especially Earthers. Meanwhile, life on Earth isn’t exactly a picnic from the few glimpses we’ve been shown as it seems that the citizens live under a severe dichotomy where most people are unemployed and destitute while the privileged few control the planet under luxurious conditions.

protomolecule julie mao and miller

The Expanse has many interesting characters with segments devoted to their diverse locales. Tying everything together is the mystery of the protomolecule. It’s an extra-terrestrial substance discovered on Saturn’s moon Phoebe by an Earth-based company called Protogen. It interacts with living tissue and radically alters it, and of course, the company tries to weaponize it. What happens is that the protomolecule is difficult to contain and quickly threatens humanity as it infects anyone that comes into contact with the substance.

Rocinante Crew

There are roughly three storylines devoted to the impact of the protomolecule. Out in the Belt and Jupiter’s moons, we follow the story of the crew of the Rocinante, who try to contain the spread of the protomolecule. The best way to think of them is to look at Firefly, meaning the characters are supposed to be your average joes who live in space in a hard-scrabble existence. The crew is made up of citizens from different planets such as the Rocinante’s Earth captain James Holden (Steven Strait), his lover and ship’s Belter engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper), Martian pilot Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham), the ship’s Earther mechanic. The four have distinct personalities ranging from easy going (Alex), to brutish (Amos). In the first season, the protomolecule overran a colony on Eros and nearly consumed the Rocinante crew. Now, they’re on an unsanctioned mission to hunt down all traces of the protomolecule elsewhere and to destroy it. Thanks to their likable nature and heroism the crew are effectively the heart of The Expanse.

Bobbie Draper

We also follow the story of a tough-as-nails Martian marine, Bobbie Draper (Frankie Adams). Introduced in the beginning of the second season, she came off as an unlikable thug who was itching for any opportunity to fight Earthers. But she saw firsthand the destructive nature of the protomolecule as a solider intentionally altered by the substance wiped out her team on Ganymede. This incident nearly starts a war between Earth and Mars as the two powers are bitter rivals. This experience has a profound impact on Draper and she starts to question her way of life. Out of all the characters in The Expanse, hers is the one that has grown the most and her development has made Draper a quick fan favorite.

Chrisjen Avarsarala

The other storyline is devoted to the United Nations assistant secretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo), who is trying to get to the bottom of the protomolecule and to prevent a war from breaking out between her planet and Mars. Aghdashloo easily provides the best acting in the show and presents a mature, regal presence that is so captivating to watch thanks in part to her husky, hypnotic voice that vaguely recalls Lauren Bacall. While the Rocinante crew are the show’s heart, and Draper the soul, Chrisjen Avarsarala represents its mind as her scintillating dialogue  with diplomats and corporate heads provide much needed food for thought.

The Expanse has another distinguishing element and that is its adherence to hard science. Although we still hear the sounds of spaceships flying about great pains are taken to show life under microgravity. We see the perils and fragility of life outside of Earth where being able to breath can be a life-or-death situation. There is time-delayed communications between colonies and Earth. One interesting segment had a group of Martians (including Bobbie Draper) arriving on Earth and having to deal with life under alien conditions. The gravity was hard on them, the sun was too bright for their eyes and they needed medication to be able to breath Earth’s air. These were nice, realistic touches. It’s not always accurate but kudos to the producers for trying their best.

martian marines on ganymede

Syfy should be applauded for championing The Expanse early on and allowing it to prosper in its second season. It has pushed the envelope in its story and given us fascinating characters. On a side note, it is regrettable that Thomas Jane’s hard-boiled detective Joseph Miller died this season but his final actions helped save Earth from being infected by the protomolecule. On the other hand, The Expanse’s second season has introduced interesting new characters that have kept its momentum. Add terrific scripts and superb production and special effects and it is easy to see why The Expanse is the best science fiction TV show airing right now.

Lewis T. Grove and José Soto

Despite Controversy & Flaws Iron Fist Hits Its Mark

The latest Netflix/Marvel TV show set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is Iron Fist. The main character and his story are based on the Marvel Comics hero created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. As the final piece of the superhero puzzle that will make up this year’s Netflix mini-series, The Defenders, Iron Fist has been mired in controversy. Most of it having to do with charges of that the title character is just another white savior type since he emulates a stereotypical Asian monastic lifestyle. Other complaints about Iron Fist are that it is slow moving and uninvolving.

These criticisms levied at Iron Fist are unfortunate because it’s generally an enjoyable, well-produced entry of the MCU. It does have its share of problems and is not as engaging as Daredevil or Jessica Jones. On the other hand, after last year’s disappointingly dull and overacted Luke Cage, Iron Fist is a course correction for the Netflix/Marvel shows.

danny rand at kun lun

The TV show centers on Danny Rand (Finn Jones), a homeless heir to a multinational corporation who reappears in the company’s Manhattan headquarters after he was believed to have died fifteen years ago. In his backstory, he and his parents were in a plane crash in the Himalayas that killed his folks, but he survived and was rescued by monks. They take Danny to K’un-Lun, a mystical, extradimensional city that appears every fifteen years on Earth. Once there, Danny is raised by the monks, learns martial arts and eventually becomes the latest in the line of a mystical warrior called the Iron Fist, the Living Weapon. His duty was to protect K’un-Lun from an evil mystical group called the Hand but is shocked after his return that the Hand are on his native world.

It takes some time for him to convince the world that he actually is Danny Rand. What doesn’t help is that when we first see him he’s barefoot, unkempt and disheveled. He spends much of his energy trying to reconnect with two childhood friends, the siblings Joy and Ward Meachum (Tom Pelphrey and Jessica Stroup), who run Danny’s company and are a couple of corporate douchebags, especially Ward. They see him as either a fraud or worse a genuine threat to their hold on the company that was founded by their fathers. The twist is that Meachum’s father, Harold (David Wenham), who supposedly died years ago, is alive and in hiding. An amoral and abusive type himself, the father takes an interest in Danny Rand’s re-emergence. This is because he sees Rand as an opportunity to take on his enemy the Hand (featured in Daredevil), who have a hold on him. With this in mind, Harold forces Ward to allow Danny into the company. Once in place as a majority shareholder, Danny begins righting the wrongs done by the company.

Rand wing and night nurse

As this corporate plotline unfolds, Danny meets a downtrodden karate instructor Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), who operates a dojo, and the two connect. She becomes his partner as he tries to get behind the reason of the Hand’s purpose on Earth and how they are connected to his company.

Iron Fist may not be immediately engaging at first. The first couple of episodes are actually frustrating with drawn out flashbacks of the plane crash and Danny trying to convince people of his identity. While he is sympathetic, Rand comes off as being too naïve and trusting. This leads to a dull stretch where he is imprisoned in a psychiatric ward and the narrative injects a pointless notion that he may be insane. While this works so well in Legion, here the subplot is plodding. But in the end, after he exhibits his first manifestation of his superhuman martial arts the show picks up momentum.

iron fist attack

Speaking of martial arts, a major drawback to Iron Fist is that for a TV show about martial arts many of the fight scenes lack power and energy. They look too choreographed and listless. This is seen in the first few minutes of the first episode “Snow Gives Way” when Danny has a by-the-numbers fight with some guards as he tries to contact the Meachums. This is a dangerous flaw for a show of this type. We are supposed to be shown that he is a superhuman martial artist, but the show has a hard time showing this to viewers. There are some good fight sequences though, many of which involve Wing, who is one of the best characters on the show, but they pale when compared to Daredevil or even Arrow.

But take heart in knowing that whenever Danny’s hands start glowing, you will be treated to some climatic displays of raw power. One drawback to keeping this show in the gritty and grounded MCU shows from Netflix is that it prevents the more mystical aspects of Rand’s backstory from being shown. It might’ve lightened the show’s mood and better matched Danny’s persona.

Of all the heroes in these shows, he seems to be the most optimistic and exudes an inner calm. This presents a challenge in that it makes it difficult to showcase any of the inner turmoil and demons which plague the stars of Daredevil, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage. In reality, this different kind of personality is a welcome change of pace from all the brooding and conflicted heroes, though it makes him a bit one dimensional. Danny just wants to do good for others during his return to our world. He just has to go through these hurdles to achieve this goal.

Once the show gets going after the early episodes, it picks up the pace and becomes more action-oriented as we want to see what happens next to these characters. The villains are not the greatest but there are attempts to give them some layering, which keeps things interesting. In Joy’s case, groundwork is laid for making her more amendable to Danny’s cause. While we try to figure out what is Harold’s ultimate agenda and though Ward comes off as one dimensional at first, there is more to him than being a corporate tool.

When compared to Daredevil (season one) or Jessica Jones, Iron Fist does not reach their levels of quality. Yet, it has its merits and is a welcome addition to the MCU. Frankly, much of the criticism is unfortunate because Iron Fist is being faithful to the source material, in the comic books he is a white man who grew up practicing martial arts in an Asian-inspired dimension. Although on the surface it may seem like it, he does not embody the white savior cliché in the comics or this show despite what some critics may want to believe.  Others may simply be tiring of the MCU and are looking for a reason to take it down a notch. Whatever the case may be, try to keep an open mind and sample this show. Iron Fist takes a while to engage you, but once it does it’s worth binge watching.

José Soto