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


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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 MCU Disconnect

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Everyone is excited over the just-released behind-the-scenes video of Avengers: Infinity War, and what it promised–namely the teaming up of diverse characters like Iron Man, Star-Lord and Spider-Man. That is all well and good, but the teaser didn’t erase the growing feeling that the films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and the TV shows set in the MCU are unrelated to each other.

Actually, that isn’t quite accurate, the TV shows have proven to be set in the MCU with its references to the films and Easter eggs, but it’s a one-way connection. That is because the MCU films have not made any references to the TV shows aside from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which dealt with S.H.I.E.L.D. at the same time that the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was running. Ever since that film the MCU disconnect has widened to the point that an argument can be made that the two media are set in different universes.

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How is this so? Starting in the second season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. that program has focused on the coming of the Inhumans, and are now a constant presence in the show as the superhumans have taken the place of mutants. We all know that was done because of rights issues with 20th Century Fox who make the X-Men films. Originally, the intent of the Inhumans’ introduction (and let’s be clear that the Inhumans featured in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. weren’t the well-known heroes like Black Bolt and Medusa, but minor ones) was to set up a big-screen Inhumans film.That was the plan.

It isn’t a secret that tensions had been raw between the mastermind behind the MCU, Kevin Feige, and the head of Marvel Entertainment, Ike Perlmutter, who was in charge of Marvel’s media. Feige ran the films while Perlmutter did the TV shows and the comic books. Perlmutter was incensed about the Fox X-Men rights and wanted to de-emphasize the mutants throughout Marvel and as a substitute for the mutants it was decided to focus on Inhumans and how they are persecuted by our society. Apparently, Perlmutter was responsible for pushing an Inhumans film and wanted to use the MCU TV shows and comic books to build interest, hence why Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. shifted from a spy actioner in its first season into a soapbox about the plight of Inhumans in later seasons.

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Feige and Perlmutter were butting heads over many issues and it became so bad that supposedly Feige was ready to jump ship until Disney intervened. Feige was allowed to become autonomous from Perlmutter and there is probably were the disconnect went into full swing. The first noticeable sign of this was in Avengers: Age of Ultron, which didn’t mention anything about what was going on with S.H.I.E.L.D. and the TV show. This raised many questions among fans in the film’s climax when a S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier appeared with many S.H.I.E.L.D. personnel and it would’ve been a perfect place to include cameos from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. characters but this didn’t happen. There were many vague explanations about why this didn’t happen but none of them were satisfactory.

Around this time (2015) Netflix premiered its entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Daredevil and Jessica Jones. Both shows made references to the larger MCU but to date the films haven’t acknowledged the superheroes that appeared in the Netflix shows. In fact, there isn’t any noticeable connection between the Netflix shows and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., which airs on ABC. There has been a couple of cryptic Easter eggs in the ABC show where a type of bullet created in Luke Cage was used in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. but was never named; there was a news blotter in one episode mentioning a gang war going on in Hell’s Kitchen, a focal location in the Netflix shows.

Now with so many characters slated to appear in Avengers: Infinity War, the fact that the bigwigs at Marvel Studios and the TV shows will not say if the film will include the TV characters is beyond frustrating. Feeble explanations about not over-crowding the film or scheduling conflicts just won’t satisfy fans.  True, it’s not the end of the world if Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t feature Daredevil but it defenderswould be a wasted opportunity. In the comic books, The Infinity Gauntlet event (the basis for this film) was a major crossover event that was packed with many Marvel characters. We already had to make peace with the notion that this film won’t include the X-Men (thanks Fox) or the Fantastic Four (blame the deal with Fox again), but Kevin Feige and company could at least throw in some kind of cameo of the TV characters. Wouldn’t it be cool if during one scene set in Hell’s Kitchen, Captain America, Iron Man and the other Avengers are besieged by Thanos’ forces and are saved at the last second by timely assists from Daredevil, Luke Cage and the other Defenders? They wouldn’t have to stay around long, just make their appearance and move on. Would it be too much to just drop the word Inhuman during some dialogue or show some news headline featuring the Punisher or Ghost Rider?

We can complain all we want about the DCEU, but at least from the beginning Warner Bros./DC Studios made it clear that the DCEU films and the Arrowverse TV shows were in two separate universes and so no one expected to see Stephen Amell popping up as Green Arrow in a DCEU film. With Marvel they dangle this illusion about a connected universe but in reality it does not exist. If that is the case, the TV shows should be freed to go off in their own direction and drop the references to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

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True, production has begun on Avengers: Infinity War but it’s not too late to work in some kind of bone to throw to the fans. Some kind of gesture would appease the legion of geeks out there who dream of seeing a true interconnected film and TV universe.

Lewis T. Grove

Luke Cage Is a Solid, But Uneven Entry in the MCU

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The newest Marvel superhero TV show to premiere on Netflix, Luke Cage, is a notable departure for the standard superhero TV fare. The question is does Luke Cage deliver the goods? Sort of, to be honest.

In trying to be different, the show falters in some important areas. Namely, in keeping up the momentum, the villains aren’t as compelling or as interesting as the other foes featured in Daredevil and Jessica Jones, and rarely does it feel as if Luke Cage (Michael Colter) is ever in real danger.

That is a problem with a superhero like Cage who is nearly invulnerable. Bullets bounce off him, his skin is impenetrable and he can shrug off attempted beatdowns from local thugs. Sure, it’s cool to watch Cage being all badass in his hoodie and walking in slow-mo as punks try mowing him down, but after awhile these scenes lack any sense of peril or urgency. luke-cage-and-popLater in the show’s run, the criminals start to up the ante with him and finally put him in danger, but it takes too long to get there. The show tries to get around this by putting people that he cares about in danger and that has mixed results. Sometimes we care about what happens to them, like with Pop (Henry Faison), a local barber who offers sage advice. Other times, we don’t.

Luke Cage is smothered with many colorful characters who are there to add mood and atmosphere, but the show goes overboard in trying to establish a so-called gritty tone that seems inauthentic at times despite the location shots and the constant use of 70s style background funk music. It tries too hard to set up a street-level atmosphere with callbacks to blaxpoitation films instead of providing a reason to keep watching the show. The other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) shows on Netflix can be binge-watched without a thought, with Luke Cage, there isn’t that compulsion to find out what happens next. It all depends on how invested you are in the characters and Luke Cage should have been front and center the main focus and at times he isn’t so that is a concern.

cottonmouthA lot of screentime is spent on the show’s main adversary Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), a Harlem crime boss that crosses path with Luke Cage. The problem with Cottonmouth is that he just doesn’t come across as particularly menacing. He is weak and inept at times, always being concerned with another crime lord, his superior Willis “Diamondback” Stryker (Erik LaRay Harvey). Cottonmouth lacks the amoral sociopathic verve of Jessica Jones’ Kilgrave or the volcanic brutality of Daredevil’s Wilson Fisk. Then there is Shades (Theo Rossi), an annoying lackey for Diamondback that is always around Cottonmouth to remind him of what he has to do. Shades tries to come off as intimidating, but looks like a poser with these stupid sunglasses.

The show’s other characters were more interesting like Detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick), who nearly steals the thunder from Cage and is deserving of her own TV show. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in next year’s Iron Fist. Rosario Dawson reprises her role as the cage-and-night-nursenurse Claire Temple and is a welcome presence as she reminds us that this show is part of the MCU. Speaking of the MCU, to this show’s credit, it does not hit viewers over the head that it is part of the MCU even though there are tons of Easter eggs. Interestingly, the events from The Avengers still have an impact even though it is more subtle. The references do not feel intrusive nor give the impression that someone has to go and watch all the MCU films and TV shows.

As for Cage himself, Colter does a terrific job playing the title hero. He exudes a quiet nobility and steel fortitude and never descends into a cliché. His back story is actually different and fresh. Once a lawman named Carl Lucas, he was framed and sent to prison where he got his powers from a lab experiment. After escaping prison, he adopted the Luke Cage identity and tries to live a low-key life. But his powers call out a responsibility and duty to his community that he cannot ignore. The moments when he becomes a local legend were pleasing highlights.

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By no means does this criticism mean that Luke Cage is a bad show; it’s a good, solid effort and isn’t unwatchable like Agent Carter or Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s just with all the talent behind and in front of the screen, it could have and should have been much better. Still, there is the hope that the next season, which is coming, no doubt, will work out the kinks and give us a better show.

T. Rod Jones

Captain America: Civil War Is Another Triumph For Marvel

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Captain America: Civil War is the culmination of the first two phases of the Marvel Cinematic  Universe (MCU) and launches Phase Three in a bold and somewhat darker direction. That is because by the end of the film, relationships are frayed, perhaps permanently, and new players have arrived to carry the torch.

A first look at the cast of characters appearing in the film, which includes most of the Avengers, may lead one to believe that the film should have been called Avengers 2.5, but this is first and foremost a movie about Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). We see that he is still struggling to fit into the modern world being that he is a product of long bygone era.

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The movie is also a direct continuation of the previous film Captain America: The Winter Soldier in that the Winter Solider aka James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) is the focus of pursuit for everyone. At the same time, the events at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron play a major factor that somehow manages to validate that film since it is considered to be an inferior sequel to The Avengers.

The destruction in the country of Sokovia at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron added to the world’s growing unease with superpowered people. This suspicion is compounded after the opening segments of Captain America: Civil War when innocent civilians are killed during a fight the Avengers have with terrorists.

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Enter: The bureaucrats in the form of U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) who demands that the Avengers sign an accord by the UN that places the superhero team under supervision and dictates that they cannot act unless ordered.  Steve Rogers objects to this, but his fellow partner and Avenger Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr. ) disagrees. He feels that superhumans need to be curtailed partly based on his own guilt about creating Ultron. Later, a terrorist bombing at a UN conference, supposedly by the Winter Soldier, sets off an alarming series of events that turn the two friends into bitter enemies as both men gather allies for their causes.

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Captain America: Civil War is already considered one of the greatest superhero films of all time and that praise is justified. Unlike the similar-themed Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, this film flows cleanly, is coherent, not choppy and adequately presents both sides of the issue. Even though Captain America is the star of the film, great pains are taken to show the validity of the other side. It becomes difficult at times to find someone to root for because we know they are both in the right. It illustrates the tragedy of a civil war amongst former friends.

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The directors Joe and Anthony Russo return for their second Captain America film and have beaten the second film curse for MCU directors. At the same time, they demonstrate with Captain America: Civil War that they can handle a large, epic story with multiple characters that are all given their moments to shine. That is an unbelievable effort that lesser directors and writers have difficulty accomplishing.

Despite the film’s length (over two hours) it leaves viewers wanting to see more of this world unfold. That is due to the constant action, fast-moving plotline, and smile-inducing appearances by other characters that get their moments in the sun and not just in action sequences. We meet T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), a noble African king out for vengeance, and of course, everyone’s favorite Web-Slinger, Spider-Man (Tom Holland). This MCU version of Peter Parker is the most authentic and realistic take of Spider-Man ever shown on film and leaves one hungering for Spider-Man: Homecoming already. Other stand out characters include Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the Vision (Paul Bettany), Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd).

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The much talked about fight scene the superheroes have with each other in an airport is worthy of the hype and shows the heroes at their best. It was a comic book fan’s dream come true seeing all these superheroes doing their thing. Needless to say the special effects were flawless, as was the intricate fight choreography. However, a following fight scene later on is much more involving and personal, while at the same time heartbreaking as we see that Rogers and Stark are at a point of no return with each other. By the end of the film, everything has changed not just for the two main characters, but for the allies that took their sides.

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Captain America: Civil War is a triumph that is worth multiple viewings not just because of the spine-tingling action but because at its heart the movie is about friendship and how it gets fractured. It is hard to believe this but even though this is Marvel Studios’ thirteenth MCU film, it proves that the Marvel Cinematic Universe can still surprise and excite us as it continues to expand.

José Soto

 

The Eve of Marvel’s Phase Three

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Marvel Studios is launching Phase Three of their Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with the release of Captain America: Civil War. It is hard to believe that less than ten years ago, the superhero film landscape changed forever with the 2008 release of Iron Man, considering he was not a top-tier character in the Marvel Universe. But, the film turned out to be much better than most expected and the very tail end of the film tantalized fans with the promise of a larger film universe when Nick Fury appeared and mentioned that not only were there other superheroes but that a team called the Avengers was planned. This was a spectacular, game-changing moment in superhero films. Never before had superhero films spawned a viable universe. Of course, the original Superman films and Daredevil had spinoff films but they were dead on arrival and seemed like afterthoughts.

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Each successive film in the MCU built upon a shared-universe platform that culminated with The Avengers and continued on with the Phase Two MCU films that concluded last year. Now the Phase Three films of the MCU promise to up the ante in superhero madness that will conclude with the two-part Avengers: Infinity War. Most likely the MCU will have undergone an upheaval that will begin with Captain America: Civil War. How so? For starters, Spider-Man is now officially part of the MCU and is the grandest prize in Marvel Studios’ quest to regain the film rights to the Marvel Comics characters. As most people know Spider-Man, Fantastic Four and the X-Men have their film rights owned by other studios. Ever since the success of Iron Man and other early MCU films, Marvel Studios has been methodically regaining film rights to their characters. Now that the webbed wonder is “shared” by Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures, who is next?

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The most likely target is the much-go home ffmaligned Fantastic Four. Currently, Fox has the film rights and by now it is clear that the movie studio does not know how to translate Marvel’s First Family into the big screen. The hot rumor going around the Internet lately is that Fox selling/trading the rights to the Fantastic Four back to Marvel is a done deal. Speculators point out that Fox being allowed by Marvel to go ahead and develop TV shows based on the X-Men franchise somehow proves this. It is believed that Marvel would not just give up the TV rights lightly. Some serious haggling must have occurred and short of giving back the X-Men to Marvel (maybe our grandchildren will live to see that happen), the only bargaining tool Fox had was the Fantastic Four. Doubters will say that both studios denied this, but remember that Sony and Marvel denied until last year that Spider-Man would join the MCU and we know how that turned out.

The thing to watch out for is the film slate for unannounced films after Avengers: Infinity War, Part II, especially now that the Inhumans film has been placed on hold. It is quite possible that Marvel wanted to make room for a potential Fantastic Four film after the Avengers or to kick off Phase Four. Nothing would thrill fans more than to see the FF make an appearance or even have an Easter egg in Avengers: Infinity War, Part II, which would set up a solo film nicely, just as it is happening now with Spider-Man. If this is going to happen, Marvel is not ready to reveal this, so as always, we have to wait and see.

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Of course, this doesn’t help soothe any hurt feelings for anyone who eagerly anticipated Inhumans. Frankly, the property hasn’t taken off in popularity despite Marvel’s best efforts in the comic books and the TV series Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. The Inhumans were supposed to take the place of the X-Men as part of the turf war that Marvel is having with Fox. But with tensions thawing between the two entertainment giants, the Inhumans lost their appeal. A reason for that can be placed to Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since the show is spending a lot (or too much according to unhappy fans) of story time to the Inhumans and what has been shown so far about them hasn’t exactly captured the imagination when compared to the X-Men. Another reason based on more Internet rumor has to do with MCU honcho Kevin Feige no longer answering to Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter. Allegedly, relations between the two were less than harmonious and now Feige is in charge of the film franchise while Perlmutter handles the TV properties. Since Inhumans have appeared first on TV, well…put two and two together. It’s just hearsay and we won’t get the actual truth for a very long time, but it is intriguing. Don’t fear for the Inhumans though. They’ll make their appearance on film one of these days. They can do so in a Fantastic Four film.

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Enough with the speculating and let us concentrate on the confirmed menu coming our way. After Captain America and Iron Man finish duking it out, we finally meet the Sorcerer Supreme, Doctor Strange this November. Next year our favorite Guardians of the Galaxy return, Spider-Man will have his grand homecoming and Thor and Hulk have a buddy film. Afterwards in 2018, Black Panther gets his solo outing, Ant-Man returns with the Wasp and the Infinity War begins. Finally, Phase Three concludes in 2019 with Captain Marvel and the conclusion of the Infinity War. We fans certainly have a full plate!

José Soto