The Defenders Come Together At Last

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The Marvel Studios mini-series event The Defenders just premiered on Netflix and is the culmination of the past four Netflix/Marvel superhero streaming shows Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage and Iron Fist. The Defenders finally brings the main leads from those shows together at last like in The Avengers, which what fans have been waiting for ever since the superhero shows were announced years ago. Needless to say this is a big deal for fans of the shows for obvious reasons.

Running only eight episodes, The Defenders stars Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock/Daredevil, Krysten Ritter as Jessica Jones, Mike Colter as Luke Cage and Finn Jones as Danny Rand/Iron Fist along with the supporting actors from their respective shows and Sigourney Weaver as Alexandra, the show’s main villain. The Defenders does not take long to get into the action and meat of the story. It starts with all four heroes separately running afoul of the mysterious Alexandra and by the third episode they all meet in the heat of battle and the story just moves along from there. As expected with these Marvel Comics stories, the four don’t exactly get along at first, which is best shown with Rand actually hurting the invulnerable Cage with his Iron Fist. But all ends well as they put aside their differences to face their mutual foes.

In their separate investigations, they learn  that the shadowy criminal organization, The Hand, who have appeared in Daredevil and Iron Fist, are making an ominous move in New York City. In a nutshell without giving too much away, the leaders of the Hand, which includes Alexandra, are carrying out an operation that will wind up destroying the city and it’s up to our heroes to stop them.

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Overall, The Defenders is an enjoyable and brisk-moving mini-series that should delight fans and casual viewers. All the actors bring their A game to the show with the standouts being Cox and his own show’s cast. Fans of the shows should be pleased that all the characters are faithfully presented. Matt Murdock carries the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jessica Jones drinks whenever she can, Luke Cage stands around and gets shot at without any injury and Danny Rand finds any opportunity to say “I am the Immortal Iron Fist!”

Despite all the complaints about Jones and his show, his character here is much better portrayed and less insufferable. Fortunately, Jones proves that he can bring something to the role and Iron Fist’s appearance here presents the case that the faults with the Iron Fist TV show were due to those showrunners, not the character or actor. For example, Jones seems more at ease during his fight scenes, a critical flaw with Iron Fist, and on the whole, the fight choreography was crisp and full of power. The standout fight scene was probably in the third episode when the four Defenders finally all meet each other, but the others spread out in the other episodes are fun to watch and grab your attention, though at times they are too dark and it is clear that some of the actors seem more natural at fighting than others. That criticism does not apply to Jones, believe it or not.

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The villains are another quibble with The Defenders. Unlike The Avengers which had the breakout villain, Loki, the villains in this show are not particularly compelling. Basically, they are just a bunch of super ninjas and though that is appropriate for the power levels of the Defenders, they could have been more threatening or had more clear motives. Another gripe about the show and the villains has to do with the fact that the show takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU).  It is not the fault of the show, but it is annoying that with the severity of the threat to the city, no one has the notion to try to contact the Avengers or even Dr. Strange given the supernatural aspect of the Hand. We don’t even see the Avengers Tower in the New York skyline, whereas in Spider-Man: Homecoming that film took every opportunity to show the tower whenever there was a shot of the city. Then there is the reaction of some of the characters to what is going on; basically they have a hard time believing in the Hand and their threat, and even the nature of the leads’ powers. This goes for especially Luke Cage, who cannot accept that Danny Rand spent time in another realm and became a mystical warrior. That is a strange reaction for an inhabitant of the MCU that has seen open alien invasions and big league superhuman battles. Let’s not forget that Cage himself has superhuman powers. For these reasons it is hard to accept that The Defenders takes place in the MCU. But that is something that fans have to ignore and just go with the story.

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What ultimately makes The Defenders work is the camaraderie between the leads and seeing them all together. Thankfully, after taking time to introduce them individually in the first episode with interesting cinematography that presents each hero with a different color scheme, the show quickly has them teaming up and getting to the meat of the story. Their interactions were very amusing and some of the show’s best moments. They all had good chemistry and complemented each other well to the point we were sold that they came to care about one another. While The Defenders may not have the same thrilling impact and joy of The Avengers, it is quite enjoyable in its own right and helps set a path forward for the future of these grounded heroes.

Lewis T. Grove

 

 

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Spider-Man: Homecoming Brings Spider-Man To The MCU With Flourish

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a glorious celebratory homecoming for Marvel’s flagship superhero into the highly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Ever since the MCU took off nine years ago and grew, fans have pined for Spider-Man to join the MCU ranks. We got a taste of how the MCU would interpret the Wall-Crawler with his scene-stealing cameo in last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Now, an entire film is devoted to him as Sony Pictures (who holds the film rights to Spider-Man) have joined forces with Marvel Studios. The result is the best Spider-Man film since the early Sam Raimi efforts.

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The film takes place shortly after Spider-Man’s debut in Captain America: Civil War and Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to go back to a humdrum life as a teenager in Queens, New York. Aching for the glory of a superhero and joining the Avengers, Peter has to contend with the usual teenage gripes like fitting in socially in high school. These aspects of Spider-Man: Homecoming are clearly influenced by the John Hughes teenage comedies and they work perfectly, by the way, this film has a great soundtrack evocative of those Hughes films. Thanks to Holland’s sincere performance, we are able to empathize with Peter and his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon). The young cast in the film are for the most part engaging, though some may be put off with the unconventional casting choices, but it should not be a deal breaker. One of the reveals about a certain character near the end feels very forced and detracts from that character who was at that point one of the film’s quirkiest and memorable characters.

Speaking of casting, Michael Keaton as Adrian Toomes/The Vulture is terrific as a working-class villain. The film takes the adequate amount of time to set him up and making him a bit sympathetic by showing him as being inadvertently pushed out of a lucrative living by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). Instead of craving revenge like in an average superhero film, Toomes finds an inventive way of earning a living by scavenging parts and wreckage from superhuman battles. Then his gang turns these parts into futuristic weapons for the black market.

During the course of Spider-Man: Homecoming, the Vulture’s activities catches Spider-Man’s attention, and this leads to conflict between the two. On one side, Toomes sees the world with a cynical eye and just wants to take advantage of an opportunity to make some money. Parker, on the other hand, is a young idealist who wants to impress Stark and sees Toomes’ activities as being wrong. In the comic books, the Vulture has always been one of the weaker members of Spidey’s rogues gallery, but in this film he shines. He is actually one of the best villains ever featured not just in Spider-Man films, but in those of the MCU.

This Spider-Man film is clearly a film set in the MCU with its Easter eggs, references and character appearances. Despite the marketing, Iron Man is not a co-star of Spider-Man: Homecoming, though his influence is there with the constant name dropping and the high-tech Spider-Man suit that the title character dons in the film. The suit worn by Spider-Man is a true marvel with all of its gadgets and gimmicks, but it strays too much from the core of Spider-Man’s character that this film otherwise gets so right. Meaning that Spidey is more of an everyman, someone who is relatable to you and I and has the same problems we face.  Hopefully in the sequel they will address this and depower the suit. On a side note, this film proves what many fans have felt over the years: Tony Stark and Happy Hogan are a couple of dicks.

Spider-Man: Homecoming’s emphasis on the hero’s hardscrabble roots and normal problems is why it’s so successful. Past Spider-Man films have shown this and were rightfully revered for doing so and this latest film continues that tradition. Not only that, but the film is a lot of fun and quite exciting at the right times. It zips along nicely without a dull moment since we are so invested in the characters when there aren’t any fisticuffs. Like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 there is some world building and set ups for sequels but unlike that film Spider-Man: Homecoming does not go overboard and as a result flows more smoothly and focuses rightfully on Spider-Man. The film does a great job of showing how Peter is still a novice at what he does, which led to some truly funny moments. Other times he gets in over his head and has to deal with the consequences. One interesting example is one scene where he crawls up a building that is higher than he’s ever scaled and when he realizes this has to deal with a fear of heights!

Now how does it compare to the Sam Raimi films? That is hard to say and will take some time to fully compare them, though the action sequences in the Raimi films were better filmed and on the whole those films were more evocative of the comic books. Also, the romances not just in Raimi’s, but in Marc Webb’s films were much better done as those actors had better onscreen chemistry than here. Still, Spider-Man: Homecoming feels more authentic and more grounded than the bombastic Raimi films. What this film has in common with the early films are the tributes and shout outs to unique Spider-Man moments and scenes directly lifted from the comic books. Remember that famous scene in Spider-Man 2 that was inspired by The Amazing Spider-Man #50? This film has another tribute to an equally famous moment from Spider-Man’s comic books, which will delight Spider-Fans.

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After the misfire of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming successfully re-launches the franchise with this amazing (pun intended) entry. At the same time, this is a spectacular (another pun!) standalone MCU film in its own right that is another winner for the cinematic universe. Hopefully, Sony and Marvel Studios will keep this up in future films.

José Soto

 

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.

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.

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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

Spider-Man’s Short-Lived Homecoming?

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Spider-Man fans have been in on an emotional rollercoaster in recent days with the increasing hype over the new film Spider-Man: Homecoming and with Sony Pictures’ plans for the Marvel Comics character with their own series of spinoff films. The reaction to the new film’s second trailer has been extremely positive, surpassing that of the initial trailer released last year. On the other side of the coin, the reception to Sony’s plan has been decidedly mixed. But the worst reaction has been to the speculation that Spider-Man will no longer be in the popular Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) following a sequel to Spider-Man: Homecoming. What started the ruckus was a recent interview of Amy Pascal in Comic Book News. As the former head of Sony Pictures and now a producer of the Spider-Man films. She stated the following:

“One of the things that I think is so amazing about this experience is that you don’t have studios deciding to work together to make a film very often. In fact, it may never happen again–after we do the sequel.”

This has given many fans reasons to panic, especially given the recent announcements of Sony continuing to develop Spider-Man spinoff films about Venom and the Black Cat. The reason is due to the film studio’s mishandling of the beloved character. We all remember that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a creative disaster, micromanaged to death by Sony who only wanted to use the film to launch other films; none of which have come to fruition. Then there was the public flailing by the studio after The Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn’t perform as well as they hoped. The non-stop announcements of films starring the Sinister Six and even Aunt May (!) made fans cringe. These embarrassing PR releases were only rivaled by Warner Bros/DC’s constant notices about upcoming DC films and who has been cast years before a film has even entered pre-production. Everything came to a head with the hack of Sony in 2014/15, which revealed in emails that the studio wasn’t sure what to do with their superhero franchise. They learned, as other film studios have, that it is not easy to replicate the success of the MCU.

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Sensing correctly the disinterest in their spinoffs, the bad feelings from The Amazing Spider-Man 2, overall poor box office from all their films, and the embarrassing emails, Sony decided to cut a deal with Disney/Marvel Studios. The result was a revamped Spider-Man, now played by an actual teenager, and the breakout star of last year’s Captain America: Civil War. Most fans and critics loved the authentic portrayal of the eager and earnest young superhero. Now that he is officially part of the MCU, Spidey could interact with Marvel Comics’ other great superheroes. All seemed well, Spider-Man made a smashing re-introduction, his next solo film was firmly in the MCU, and the trailers were well received, so nothing could go wrong.

Venomous Reception

Sony probably felt that same way when they announced that a Venom film was not only being developed but that it is coming out in October 2018. Before this revelation, Sony scheduled an animated Spider-Man film to feature Miles Morales, and the news was well received since after all it’s just a cartoon. The Venom news, however, was a mixed bag. Those who have clamored for a hard-edged Venom solo film were excited, while others feared another mismanaged superhero film that would dilute Spider-Man. The slipshod way the character was handled in Spider-Man 3 was all the proof the fans needed that Sony would screw up again. Adding to this trepidation was the news that Venom would not be in the MCU and whether or not Spider-Man would even appear.

Perhaps Sony was emboldened by the success of Deadpool and Logan, two films that are not necessarily part of their shared universes and were hits despite being R-rated. They obviously feel they can learn from their mistakes and duplicate this formula. Maybe they can and maybe they will be successful with their announced Black Cat/Silver Sable film. The key has to do with who is hired to make the film. Continue reading

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