Tag Archives: Marvel

“AVENGERS: ENDGAME” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Avengers, assembled. 

It’s hard to believe that we live in a time where it’s now possible to watch a 22-movie saga in the movie theater. It was only 11 years ago when Robert Downey Jr. told the world that he was Iron Man for the first time in 2008. Even back then, the idea of fitting six superheroes into one team-up movie in The Avengers seemed overstuffed – not to mention incredibly self-absorbed. Now we’ve gone through the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s entire journey as it grows and culminates into an emotionally-charged epic in Avengers: Endgame – one that earns every frame of its three-hour runtime.

The most impressive part of all this isn’t how many super-powered characters they’re able to fit onto the screen all at once: it’s how it’s able to retain its heart while doing so.

Taking place after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, the Avengers are left crippled, broken and devastated after Thanos did what he promised to – collect all six of the Infinity Stones and wipe out half of all life in the universe, reducing many of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and even Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to dust.

Humanity has tried to move on from Thanos’ fateful snap. Time and time again, the Avengers are told they need to do the same.

But none of them can forget how much they’ve lost.

Now resolved to make Thanos pay for everything he’s done, the original Avengers assemble with the likes of Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) for one last fight to protect all that they hold dear.

As Doctor Strange said in Infinity War, the Avengers are in the Endgame now.

One of the immediate things that strikes you about Avengers: Endgame is how drastically different it feels from the rest of the movies in its cinematic universe. Every movie so far, from Iron Man all the way to Black Panther, has retained some sense of euphoric joy and enthusiasm, fulfilling these superhero fantasies that never fail to make us feel like kids again. Even in Infinity War, which ended on a cripplingly devastating cliffhanger, started with a sense of scale that made our inner comic-book nerd scream in excitement.

But Avengers: Endgame does not start in a joyous tone. Indeed, it is very mournful and reflective – as somber as a funeral and twice as quiet. This makes sense, of course, considering the consequences of Infinity War carry over into Endgame. Still, I was surprised at how much this movie chose to immerse itself in the Avengers’ loss and tragedy. There isn’t even a lot of action to take in for the first two acts of this movie: it’s all just character development as these heroes suffer from the greatest defeat they’ve ever experienced in their lives. That level of penance and guilt is rare in an action movie, and even rarer still in a Marvel superhero blockbuster.

It isn’t until the third act when the movie explodes into the pure comic-book fun and madness that you’ve become accustomed to throughout this franchise. And rest assured, dear reader – I won’t spoil anything here. What I will say is that I felt fulfilled to every bone in my body and then some. There are several iconic moments from this franchise that have blown us away in the past, from the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers movie to the titular battle between Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War. The climax in Avengers: Endgame blows everything else we’ve experienced out of the water and shook the entire theater to its core.

Words simply can’t do justice to what I felt as the Endgame drew near.

And in its closing moments, Avengers: Endgame brings something that is especially rare in the superhero genre: closure. While franchises as big as the Avengers are great at taking us on fun, meaningful journeys with our heroes, the thing about journeys is that they have to have an end to them. Most of these franchises are usually missing those, and I can tell you why they do: it’s because most studios would rather continue piling on the sequels and keep churning out a cheap profit, even if their stories should have probably ended a long time ago.

The special thing about Avengers Endgame is not only does it have a definitive ending for some of its characters: it’s that it relishes in providing that. It takes pride in the fact that it’s able to give some of these heroes the sendoff they deserve: the peace and resolution they’ve fought so long and hard for. It’s like seeing one of your childhood friends move away start a family and raise their own children. You’ll no doubt miss them and you’re sad to say goodbye, but you’re happy that they’ve finally reached their happy ending at the same time.

Keep in mind that Avengers: Endgame is not a perfect movie by any means, and in many ways, it’s actually seriously structurally flawed. Since the movie is built up on so much on the rest of the franchise, much of its appeal relies on nostalgia and fan service and not so much on its own setup and execution. When I say this movie is the climax of a 22-movie saga, I mean it. You would not enjoy this movie as much if you’ve only watched the other Avengers movies, or skipped out on a Thor movie here or there.

Yet, I couldn’t care less about the movie’s narrative shortcomings. Why? Because it’s so blasted fulfilling and impactful regardless. I had no idea a decade ago how much this universe would grow beyond 11 years and 22 movies – how expansive this world would become, or how much it would mean to the millions of fans who have passionately followed it all these years.

Avengers: Endgame is exactly what it purports to be – the resolution to these heroes’ journeys, the culmination of years of storytelling, and the end to this multi-year saga that we’ve all become a part of. To say it meets our gargantuan expectations is a severe understatement. It is nothing short of a cinematic epic not unlike Ben-Hur or The Lord of the Rings – one that we definitely won’t forget anytime soon.

Excelsior.

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Top 10 Non-MCU Movies

It’s here, at long last – the Endgame.

With the Marvel franchise going on 22 movies strong and counting, it seems impossible to think that an era is about to come to an end with Avengers: Endgame, which is releasing in theaters this weekend. I personally don’t believe it is the end. For one thing, Spider-Man: Far From Home is scheduled for release later this summer, despite Peter’s seeming demise in Avengers: Infinity War. Sequels for Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and Guardians of the Galaxy are also slated for production as well. And with Disney’s recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox, that gives Marvel a slew of new characters to bring into the fold of their cinematic universe, including the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Deadpool.

Still, Avengers: Endgame does seem to be the big finale for a lot of big stars that have been attached to the series for a long time now. Samuel Jackson, for instance, has been attached to the series as Nick Fury ever since 2008, playing the one-eyed S.H.I.E.L.D. director a whopping nine times and counting. Chris Evans has been attached to the series nearly as long as Captain America ever since his first movie in 2011. And don’t even get me started on Robert Downey Jr., who has played Iron Man now 10 times for over 10 years.

It does seem like there will be a finality to Avengers: Endgame when it comes out this weekend – although how exactly remains to be seen. Still, if anything, let’s be grateful that we’ve gotten to go on this 20-plus movie journey together, alongside Earth’s mightiest heroes.

With that being said, let’s take a look back at some of Marvel’s best, leading up to Avengers: Endgame.

– David Dunn

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A Marvelous Legend

CREATIVE COMMONS

Stan Lee was always recognized as the guy who wrote Spider-Man. Not the Fantastic Four. Not the Hulk. Not the X-Men, or Iron Man, or Doctor Strange, Black Panther, or the Avengers. “Nope,” he wrote in a foreword to one of his books. “It’s always ‘Aren’t you the one who wrote Spider-Man?’”

Stan had a theory for why he was recognized for Spider-Man more than any of his other heroes: it was because of his humanity. “He never has enough money,” Stan continued. “He’s constantly beset by personal problems, and the world doesn’t exactly applaud his deeds. In fact, most people tend to suspect and distrust him.”

“In short, he’s a lot like you and me.”

I don’t disagree with him. Long before I became absorbed into the world of Marvel, superheroes, villains, and amazing fantasies, I was just a kid on my elementary school playground, my daydreams limited only to the far reaches of my imagination. It was on that playground where I saw other kids going bam, pow, and ka-blooey with their colorful action figures, one of them wearing red and blue spandex covered in webbing and a spider symbol. I pointed to the figure, and I asked them “Who’s that?” The kids all laughed in unison. “That’s Spider-Man, dummy,” one of them piped to me. “You’ve never heard of him?”

I didn’t know about him then, but as the years passed I learned much more about him and became completely enamored by his story. I read the original comic where he made his debut appearance in 1962’s “Amazing Fantasy #15” and became heartbroken by the loss of his Uncle Ben, but touched when he realized his mistakes and promised to set out and be better. I felt excitement as I watched him battle incredible enemies such as the energetic Electro, the multi-metal-limbed Doctor Octopus, the ghastly Mysterio, the brutish Venom, and of course the menacing Green Goblin. I was crushed when I not only saw the love of his life, Gwen Stacy, killed on the fateful Brooklyn Bridge but killed by his own webbing no less when he tried to save her but accidentally snapped her neck. And I felt resolution years later when he found new love in the breathtaking Mary Jane Watson and had moved on to start a family with her.

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Spider-Man was my introduction to the Marvel universe, but when I learned how big and expansive it truly was, I was nearly overwhelmed. I quickly became absorbed by all of Stan Lee’s stories and learned about the many subjects that he touched upon. I read the Incredible Hulk and learned how dangerous it was to inhibit your emotions. I read about Daredevil and learned that your disability doesn’t define you, and in some ways, it can embolden you. I read about Doctor Strange and learned that when you lose one gift, sometimes it opens up a path to receive another. I read the X-Men and learned that our differences are nothing to be ashamed or afraid of. In many ways, it is our very strength and represents the best humanity has to offer.

Stan Lee’s superheroes and stories have touched many lives – my own included. It becomes nearly impossible not to become enamored by his stories, or the person who created them.

But the truth was Stan was not a superhero. Far from it. Throughout his life, there was much argument over how much of a hand he really had in his characters and for sometimes hogging the spotlight from his fellow co-creators. Comic book legend Jack Kirby, who co-created the Fantastic Four and the X-Men alongside Lee, even went so far as to claim that he’s “never seen Stan write anything.” And artist Steve Ditko arguably had just as much a hand in creating Spider-Man as much as Lee did. Yet, you might be surprised to find out that he also died earlier this year to a significantly lesser tribute.

And then there are the even further complications of his last years on Earth. In July 2017, Stan lost his wife Joan died due to stroke complications. In April earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter published an expose on Lee suffering from elder abuse from several associates looking to gain control over his assets, including one Keya Morgan whom he filed a restraining order against in August. Later, The Daily Mail published a story claiming that Lee repeatedly sexually harassed the nurses that came to take care of him by asking them to join him in the shower, walking around naked, and requesting sexual favors. Then, just as quickly as the story broke, it faded from memory. I have no idea whether those rumors are true or not. I pray they are not.

I say all this not to tarnish his legacy, but to be honest about it. Stan was a comic-book visionary, a passionate storyteller and a gargantuan pop-culture icon. He will no doubt be among history’s greatest creators, not unlike Walt Disney with animation or Alfred Hitchcock with the movies. And like these men, he had a complicated legacy with his success – one that should not be ignored or skipped over. How people react to that context is up to them. All I can do is speak for myself, and I know for a fact that Stan Lee’s characters and stories have had a profound impact on my life and the person that I have become – regardless of the confused, flawed human being who is behind them.

I will say this: regardless of what you may feel of Stan Lee or his history, I hope you remember and appreciate his many contributions to the entertainment industry. His stories have been compelling, thought-provoking, and relevant to the real world. His characters have been memorable, dazzling, and relatable. And the impact he’s left on the comic-book and movie scene has been mighty, uncanny, incredible, spectacular, fantastic, even amazing.

Stan Lee has passed, but his heroes live on. They will always live on. I cried this weekend while revisiting Spider-Man 2, realizing that the most profound thing about Peter Parker wasn’t his spider powers, his wall-crawling, web-slinging, or his Spider-sense. It was the fact that he was a person, and despite his personal troubles and issues, he was always trying to do the right thing for everybody – despite not knowing them or what they go through themselves.

I hope as time passes, people will remember that sentiment. That with many gifts comes much giving. That with our many talents comes the duty of sharing it with others. And yes, the lesson that has stuck with me all these years and will carry me for many more – with great power comes great responsibility.

Thank you, Stan. For everything.

Excelsior,

– David Dunn

1922-2018

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“VENOM” Review (✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: SONY PICTURES

Like a turd in the wind.

There is a moment in Venom where the titular multi-tentacled anti-hero is threatening a burglar inside a convenience store. He tells him he’s going to eat both of his arms, both of his legs, and then eat his face right off of his head. “You will be this armless, legless, faceless thing, won’t you?” he narrates to the petrified thief. “Rolling down the street: like a turd in the wind.”

Why am I opening my review talking about turds? Because as awkward and misplaced as that line sounds, it is perhaps the most accurate description of this entire movie. Venom is violent, creepy, edgy, seethingly disturbing, and just when it begins to build up into something interesting… it takes a wrong turn and nosedives into the pavement. It’s already been demonstrated countless times before, but if you need further proof as to why great comic book supervillains make for terrible superhero movies, look no further than Venom.

Based on the Marvel comic supervillain of the same name, Venom follows Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist who has a nasty habit of following people who do not want to be followed. After accusing a high-profile tech CEO of purposefully murdering test subjects at an alarming rate, Brock loses his job and is abandoned by his fiancee Ann Weying (Michelle Williams). Now without a job, a career, and a love life, Brock just sits alone in his apartment, drowning himself in pity and alcohol.

One day, Brock unknowingly comes into contact with a gooey substance that reveals itself as a life form: a symbiote that physically and mentally bonds itself with Eddie. Granting Eddie super-strength, speed, agility, and a menacingly toothy grin, the symbiote creates a new life form that is neither Eddie Brock or the symbiote. Together, they are reborn as the man-eating monster known as Venom.

You might remember that this is not Venom’s first live-action outing for the big screen. You might be better off forgetting it. His first attempt at the spotlight was in 2007’s Spider-Man 3, where he was played by “That 70’s Show” actor Topher Grace. He was rightfully and relentlessly mocked for his insipid, whiny, pathetic portrayal of an otherwise terrifying character. If I come out of the theater and I am annoyed by Eric Forman instead of shaken by Eddie Brock, you know there’s a serious problem here.

The best thing I can say about this new Venom movie is that it does an excellent job rebooting the character, washing your memory of his God-awful debut a decade earlier and updating him with a sicker, more menacing design. A large part of that is in thanks to Tom Hardy, who switches between playing the two different characters here in mesmerizing contrast. When he portrays Eddie Brock, he molds him as a sort of vulnerable, pitiful character: a failing journalist who is drunk for half of the day and down on his luck for the other half. But besides playing the exasperated and horrified Eddie Brock, Hardy also voices the Venom symbiote possessing his body, and the way he expresses Venom’s menacing, snake-like delivery is just downright chilling to listen to.

This in combination with the efforts from the visual effects team makes for an ominous, visceral presence in this 10-foot CGI creature. One of the best things about this movie is when the Venom symbiote breaks out into his full form, taking complete control over Brock’s body and just starts running over any enemy in his path. When the movie breaks out into full-blown creature-feature action, that’s when the film is at its best, with Venom’s tentacles flailing about, making giant spider-like leaps, and chomping off bad guy’s heads like they’re the stem of a Tootsie pop. Many fans were reasonably concerned what Venom was going to look like in this movie with his last big-screen appearance still in our memory. I want this on the record: Venom looks and feels vicious, and he rightfully earns the title of lethal protector.

So the Eddie Brock and Venom characters are fleshed out very well in this movie. What isn’t done as well? Essentially everything else.

For one thing, Michelle Williams does nothing for this movie. Her character could literally have been portrayed by Megan Fox, and she would carry the same emotional relevance throughout the movie. That goes double for Riz Ahmed, who plays the movie’s villain named Riot. His character is essentially a gray-scaled clone of Venom, which doesn’t do any favors for the movie’s final battle where black and gray goo basically just splashes against each other over and over again.

The real problem here lies in how the characters are written. They aren’t organic. They don’t feel like they belong here. And unlike Eddie Brock and his venomous alter-ego, their roles don’t have any real impact on the story as a whole. Ann Weying is here because every superhero apparently needs a love interest, and this story wouldn’t be complete without some complicated romantic feelings involved. Riot feels especially shortchanged. Instead of being the relentless, unhinged force he’s supposed to be, he just feels flat and artificial: like a final boss in a video game instead of a mortal enemy for our hero. That lack of effort into fleshing out these characterizations makes for dull, uninspired portrayals, which is especially unfair given the talent and caliber of these two actors. If you don’t believe me, look at Williams’ work in My Week With Marilyn and Ahmed’s work in Nightcrawler. Then look at their performances here and tell me they were given ample material to work with.

All in all, Venom is not the worst movie in the world, but it isn’t really a good one either. It’s just sort of there flailing in the whirlwind of superhero mania that hops from one franchise to another. I am curious as to how the series will progress from here, as Sony has relentlessly teased that they wanted to launch their own cinematic universe from this movie. I at least have more hope for the Venom cinematic universe than I do for, say, the DC Extended Universe. But on its own two tentacles, Venom is ugly, messy, and something I’d much rather forget about: like a turd in the wind.

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“AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The beginning of the end.

We live in an age of gargantuan expectations. That’s why we’re able to accept a movie with 30 superheroes fighting in it when six years ago, it felt a bit much to have just six superheroes together on one screen. Well, if Marvel achieved nothing else with Avengers: Infinity War, they achieved the impossible. They made a superhero movie with a larger cast than any of the 18 films that came before it, and they pulled it off magnificently.

A sequel to (*takes deep breath*) Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, (*breathes again*), Avengers: Infinity War follows the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) on a quest to find the six Infinity Stones, magical gems imbued with supernatural power. The Avengers know the location of a few of the Infinity Stones. The Power Stone, for instance, was stored away on the planet Xandar in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, while the Space Stone is housed in the Tesseract, which was on Asgard when it was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok. The Collector (Benecio Del Toro) has ownership of the Aether, a.k.a. the Reality Stone on Knowhere, while Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have the Time and Mind Stones respectively. If Thanos finds all six of the Infinity Stones first, he will use them to wipe out half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Scattered and displaced, the Avengers must team up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to find the Infinity Stones before Thanos does and put a stop to his madness.

The sheer size of Avengers: Infinity War is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness: a double-edged sword to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When this franchise started 10 years ago with the release of Iron Man, its world was relatively focused and self-contained, keeping it small with just a handful of names featured in each individual movie. Now, they’ve straight-up exploded into pure comic-book madness. Previous MCU movies typically did not have a billed cast that went significantly beyond 10 actors. Even Captain America: Civil War, the biggest MCU film before Infinity War, was pushing it at a 18-member cast. Infinity War blows that away with 35 actors.

With that large of a cast, there’s plenty of action to show off, and there’s plenty of spotlight to share amongst all of the stars here. Whether Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Doctor Strange are fighting Thanos’ minions in New York, or an elderly Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is rescuing an injured Vision, or Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time, there’s plenty of memorable moments to pick out from the film to make you grin from ear-to-ear. It’s almost like a cinematic wheel-of-fortune for the movie theater: spin the wheel, and see what special prize you win at random.

This both works and backfires for the film’s available cast. On one hand, the fact that there’s so many amazing moments to pick from really brings a plethora of joy and thrills into the movie theater, making for some outstanding blockbuster entertainment. But with this large of a cast and this ambitious of a scope, that also brings in a key problem: it’s too easily distracted. Since the movie is basically one overstuffed comic-book Easter Egg lined up one after the other, there’s no real room for anyone to have their individual moment to shine, and as this is the case, our heroes are forced to share the frame with everyone else packed into the screen with them. With the original Avengers, you could pinpoint one key moment where each Avenger outshined the rest, whether Tony was threatening Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in his penthouse, Captain America was issuing out orders to the team, or Hulk was smashing Puny God’s brains in. You could not pinpoint one such moment in Infinity War, because there are no individual moments. Everyone is fighting everyone for everyone, and it’s very easy to get lost with all of the spectacle going on at once.

I did enjoy Josh Brolin quite a bit as Thanos. In a franchise where the villains have consistently been the weaker aspect of these superhero movies, Marvel has finally pushed out not one, but two fantastic villains in the same year: Erik Killmonger in Black Panther and Thanos in Infinity War. They’re very interesting for very similar reasons. One, their performances are on-point, and the actors fully commit themselves to the complexities and absurdities of their roles. Two, they are given very compelling reasons for their villainy, and you sympathize with them not because of their moral compass, but because of their life experiences that drove them to make the decisions that they did.

Killmonger, for instance, wanted to start a race war to compensate for years of suffering the African-American people have had to endure at the hands of the white majority. Thanos, while not race-driven, has an equally motivated reason for seeking universal genocide: he’s trying to save the universe. In one particular scene, he explains his violent reasoning to a hesitant listener, and he makes his position clear. This universe’s space is finite, its resources finite. And its population is growing too big to sustain itself. Comparing it to one memory where he wiped out half of one planet’s population, he pointed out that the children were starving and dying on that planet before he came. Now, their bellies are full and they are healthy and happy. In the perspective of population control and prolonging extinction, Thanos makes the hard decision to cut down on what he sees as the fat to extend life in the universe. His commitment to his mission makes him a very compelling villain to watch, even though you don’t enjoy the cruelty and violence that he brings with him.

I do think some of the material is too disturbing for some younger viewers. I myself even struggled to watch some of the movie’s harsher, more vindictive moments. Still, Avengers: Infinity War is ambitious and daring in its art, even if it is equally devastating in the same sentence. These movies used to represent something more lighthearted about superheroes; a greater ideology to be the bigger, better person and to help other people achieve the same thing. Now it’s about facing harsh conclusions and realities, and I’m not sure if I enjoy it quite as much.

When Thanos set out for his galactic conquest, he did so believing in one thing: that he could save the universe by wiping out half of it. We already know that his crusade is monstrous and horrifying. The scary part is not knowing whether he’s wrong.

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“BLACK PANTHER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Long live the king.

Black Panther represents a watershed moment for African-American superheroes and Hollywood: a chance to really redefine what an action hero means to people and how they’re represented in mass media. It has all of the elements that makes any Marvel film a great one. It has passionate performances from its talented cast members. Smart character development that makes our heroes’ choices meaningful and consequential. Not to mention its spectacular action sequences that pretty much guarantees it an Oscar nomination year-in-and-year-out. But what makes Black Panther particularly special is the significance of its diversity; its emboldening of marginalized communities by giving them a platform to say what they’ve been trying to say all of these years. It’s one thing to be simply entertained by a superhero movie. It’s another thing entirely to be impacted by the experience and take it with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. Or in this case, Wakanda.

Taking place after the character’s debut in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther now finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as King of Wakanda, a hidden African nation housing the Earth’s largest deposit of a rare metal called Vibranium. After losing his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and sparing his killer at the end of Civil War, T’Challa believes that the worst is behind him and he can now focus solely on governing his people.

He is sorely mistaken.

For one thing, M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the Jabari tribe are in strong opposition to T’Challa’s rule, and he’s committed to challenging him for the throne at all costs. Weapons smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) rears his ugly head once again, as he has an violent history with Wakanda for constantly stealing plots of Vibranium from them. And a shady assassin who goes by “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) has an eerie obsession with the Black Panther and a hidden agenda he has regarding Wakanda and its people.

Black Panther achieves so much on so many levels that it’s hard to pick where exactly to start. I’ll begin with the writer and director Ryan Coogler, who has achieved ground-breaking strides here both visually and aesthetically for this film. Coogler, who gained attention in his earlier years for helming the biographical picture Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed, creates a technically immaculate world in Wakanda, a highly-advanced society that feels removed and secluded from the rest of the world, but also possesses its own breath and heartbeat in the same sentence. The costumes and makeup evoke the feel and tribalism of the ancient Congo tribes from Africa, a culture which at least partially helped inspire the “Black Panther” comic books, while the production design evokes an Afro-futuristic setting that feels like its evolved years beyond any Western civilization could have in a hundred years. And the action? Spectacular. Whether Black Panther is fighting without his armor in a Wakandan waterfall, or pursuing Klaue through one speeding car to another, the action is fast-paced, enthralling, and engaging. I haven’t felt this excited in a superhero film since The Dark Knight in 2007. Yes, I am saying this with The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War in mind as well.

But it’s not just the production itself that’s so impressive: it’s also the story that Coogler crafts here, a humble fable about a king wanting to do the right thing, but is haunted by the sins of his ancestor’s past. One of my concerns going into this movie was how Coogler was going to handle the race element of the picture. Was he going to ignore it altogether and focus solely on the superhero aspect? Or was he going to put so heavy an emphasis on it that the movie became a social statement instead of an action blockbuster? The answer is neither. Like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Civil War, there are heavy themes underlying the film’s subtext, but it is not what compels the film itself forward. What makes this film a great one is that it is a character drama first, and a social allegory second. The themes of institutional racism and prejudice is as a consequence of the character’s actions throughout the film. It is not the action itself. In making its point humbly, it allows the message to be seen at its most transparently, while at the same time not distracting from all of the superhero spectacle going on.

It would be a crime if I did not mention the film’s outstanding cast. They are the best of any MCU movie so far, hands down. Everyone is so spectacular in their roles, so humane and believable in their interaction with each other that I could dedicate an entire article to talking about each performer individually. I would easily campaign for the film to receive a Screen Actor’s Guild Outstanding Cast nomination, if the SAG Awards didn’t play so much to their bases to begin with.

Boseman, of course, kills it as T’Challa. He was great in Civil War a few years ago, and he’s just as great as he is now. Yet interestingly enough, my favorite characters from the movie are its antagonists, which serve as a sort of remedy to the villain problem Marvel has been facing for a long time now. Duke, for instance, succeeds in playing a dryly charismatic bear in M’Baku, and he’s so boorish that I would love to just give the guy a big hug, were it not that he could crush me in one muscle reflex. Serkis is so wild and over-the-top as Klaue, yet that just makes him all the more fun and fascinating of a character to watch. We usually have the most fun in Marvel movies seeing the heroes and villains duke it out over highly-rendered green screen action sequences. I find it interesting that Serkis was just as fun to watch ranting in an interrogation room as much as he was firing his arm cannon at his enemies.

The best of these performers, however, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Part of what makes his performance so mesmerizing is that you don’t really expect a villainous performance out of the guy to begin with. He was one of the super-powered teenagers in Chronicle, Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in Creed. He’s not really known for playing cruel or malicious characters. Yet, that’s exactly what makes his performance as Killmonger so compelling. It’s the fact that he’s coming from a very human place with it, and his motivations against the Panther make sense and are relatable on a personal level. He is easily one of my favorite villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He would have been number one, if Tom Hiddleston’s Loki didn’t occupy my top spot.

Black Panther is a surprising masterpiece. It’s a stylish action movie, an important social commentary, and a theatrical character drama that hits all of the right notes that it needs to all at once. I’ve given four-star reviews for multiple MCU movies in the past, including Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. I would recommend all of these movies solely based on how fun they were alone. Black Panther is the first to be truly profound outside of its Blockbuster value. It is the bridge where art meets entertainment.

No, Black Panther is not the first black superhero to be adapted to the big screen. That title belongs to Todd McFarlane’s Spawn in 1997. Like the Wakandan king himself, however, it seems destined to become the most significant from a long line of predecessors. And rightfully so.

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“THOR: RAGNAROK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

We will, we will Ragnarok you.

Just when you thought Marvel had used all the tricks up their sleeve, they release Thor: Ragnarok, a movie that has absolutely no business being this good or memorable. Here is a picture which, by every metric, should have failed. It’s a Thor movie first of all, and it features the one Avenger so dull that a cardboard mannequin with a blonde wig is more interesting than him. His co-star is the Hulk, and that meshing of fantasy and sci-fi genres makes about as much sense as putting Harry Potter in a Batman movie. It’s the third part of a trilogy, which usually ends up being the worst in the series (See Spider-Man 3, X-Men: Apocalypse). On top of that, this film is a retro-comedy aiming for the style akin to Guardians of the Galaxy. How on Asgard could Marvel have pulled this off? Spectacularly, that’s how.

A sequel to both Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Thor: Ragnarok follows our golden-haired hero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) propelled through the universe as he tries to prevent Ragnarok, the prophesized destruction of Asgard. He goes to Muspelheim to capture the fire demon Sultur (Clancy Brown), Midgard to find his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins), the Sanctum Sanctorum to meet Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Sakaar to fight the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Asgard to face Hela, the Goddess of Death (Cate Blanchett). I’m telling you, this guy gets around. If he traveled anymore in the movie, he’d have to throw away his hammer and resort to montages for faster travel.

Here is a movie that, for the life of me, I don’t understand how it works. This film packs five different genres into one narrative, and that usually spells doom for any movie that tries to do that. Not here. Thor: Ragnarok is a funny comedy, a thrilling action movie, an exciting adventure, a heartfelt drama, and a groundbreaking superhero epic that hits every single note that it needs to. A movie this busy should not feel this simple, yet it flows and moves effortlessly, like how one stretches and plays with silly putty.

Where do I even start? The film’s director Taika Waititi executes his film chaotically yet masterfully, filling his characters with vibrant personalities and throwing them through action scenes resemblant of a little kid playing with his action figures. My main complaint with superhero movies (and really most action blockbusters in general) is that studios focus so much on the action and visual effects that they forget that character and personality is the driving force behind the successes of most major film franchises. For example, would the visual feats in Superman and Star Wars have felt as incredible if Clark Kent or Luke Skywalker weren’t as likeable of heroes to begin with?

Thor: Ragnarok takes cues from both of those movies as it emboldens its characters with electric personalities, playing off of their charisma and creating witty, comedic dialogue between each other. Chris Hemsworth continues to play the fratty, oblivious oaf in Thor as he always has, but here he does it with a self-awareness that makes him funny enough to pass it off as likeable. Ruffalo steals the spotlight in a mostly Hulk-dominated performance, yet rounds him out with a subtle arc that possesses its own somberness and tragedy within it. And Blanchett surprisingly offers up a menacing and diabolical performance in a franchise that is usually lacking in the villain presence, even though her motivations for fighting Thor are kind of weak in the film.

Everything else from the film is unorthodox perfection. Seriously. I haven’t seen anything like it. The comedy hits exactly the right notes with the right lines. The drama, while at times a little too brisk, strikes with the emotional chord that it needs to. The action scenes are thrilling. The visual effects, mesmerizing. The music, synthesized and catchy. Even the Easter Eggs are infectious in their appeal, with one cameo involving Tom Hiddleston’s Loki making me laugh so hard that my surrounding audience members started to look worried for me.

If I had any weakness to offer, it would be that the film’s tone is jarring compared to previous entries, with the series doing a complete 180 in genre from a Norse fantasy epic to an action-comedy so in-cheek that the “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?” troupe would wonder where their invite was. But to that I say screw consistency, this is a fantastic movie; one that flips one of Marvel’s most boring characters and somehow makes him the most interesting. Maybe I would be irritated by the change in aesthetic if they did this with Iron Man or Captain America, but that’s only because those characters already have an interesting arc and personality to them. Thor is more of a blank slate, and in realizing this, Waititi pulls out his paint cans and floods the screen with as much color and life as he can.

I haven’t had this much fun in a superhero movie since The Avengers in 2012. Yes, I’m comparing Thor: Ragnarok to The Avengers. Don’t knock it until you try it. While it doesn’t confront real-world issues and moral dilemmas like Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Civil War does, Thor: Ragnarok more than makes up for it with its stylish action, colorful visuals, brilliant self-awareness, and gut-busting humor so hilarious that it’s difficult not to pee your pants from laughing so much. This is a movie where Deadpool could appear in randomly halfway through the picture and it would still make complete sense.

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“THOR: THE DARK WORLD” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Et tu, Loki?

Thor: The Dark World is another Thor movie, and how much you’re going to like it depends just on how you react to hearing that. I quite liked the first Thor, although the town scenes meandered a bit too much for my liking. Beyond that, it was a fun, standard superhero fanfare that watched and clapped its hands whenever Thor whacked something with his hammer. Thor: The Dark World has all of the elements that made the first Thor successful, just more of it.

After Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) embarrassing defeat at the hands of the world’s mightiest heroes in The Avengers, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) brings him back to Asgard to stand trial against his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins). While this is going on, the ancient dark elf Malekith (Christopher Eccleston), who has spent centuries trapped in suspended animation, is suddenly set free and assembles his army to reclaim the Aether, a powerful artifact that can eat away and disintegrate entire worlds. Now with the fate of the nine realms in the balance, Thor needs to team up with Sif (Jaimie Alexander), the Warriors Three, and even Loki to defeat Malekith and free the universe from his madness.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: Malekith is a terrible villain. Don’t get me wrong, Eccleston is a fantastic actor, and he brings a sense of conviction and ruthlessness to his role unlike anything we’ve seen from him when he played the ninth doctor in BBC’s “Doctor Who” series. But the villain himself is completely flat and uninteresting. He has no personal stake in Thor or anybody else’s story. He’s just a giant, ugly-looking grey Yoda ripoff that has the typical “I WILL DESTROY THE UNIVERSE” shtick. He doesn’t have Obadiah Stane’s deceitful snide, the Red Skull’s malicious presence, or even Loki’s sickly narcissistic charm. No, he’s just your typical big baddie with zero personality or interest, and he inhabits the film like Marvel needed to fit the bill just so they could green light the production. In an age where supervillains have the potential to be the best or most memorable element in a superhero film, Malekith is just flimsy and forgettable. He offers nothing significant to set him apart from the rest of the Marvel crew.

Thankfully, Hiddleston offers more than enough personality and interest as Loki to make up for Malekith’s lackluster inclusion. One of the things about Hiddleston that constantly impresses me is how well he inhabits the cunning and madness of Loki whenever he’s in character. He has a jesting, flamboyant flair to him, yet a sinister undertone that’s always seething beneath like a snake’s venom through his teeth. Unlike Malekith, Loki has a grounded investment in the story, has personal ties and a history with the film’s hero, and plenty of deep layers that reveal themselves the more you pull back on them. There’s an incredibly interesting arc to his character, an almost Shakespearean tragedy that tells of a man infatuated with himself and his riches, but only inflicts himself the further he draws away from his family and friends. The dynamic that he shares with Hemsworth as his brother easily takes precedence as the most memorable moments from the movie. He could have a film entirely dedicated to himself and not lose one bit of interest or investment in it. He’s that good.

The rest of the film is your typical Asgardian action-adventure. Characters fly and fight each other in incredible visual spectacle, the costumes on both the Asgardians and the elves have an edge and detail to them that evokes the feel of ancient Roman garb and armor, and the set design of Asgard and its surrounding worlds continues to shine in spectacularly vivid detail, as if it’s an image ripped straight from our dreams as opposed to the frames on celluloid. The film’s director Alan Taylor demonstrates a keen eye on the design and visual appearance of Asgard and the nine realms, and so he should. He’s directed seven episodes from the highly-praised “Game of Thrones” television series, another show that had highly-stylistic violence and an acute sense of detail to its scenery and costumes. Thor: The Dark World is a fitting follow-up for him. Asgard continues to astound and amaze, the action is just as exciting and gripping, and Taylor continues to expand upon this infinite universe that Thor is constantly exploring.

So which film is better? Thor, or The Dark World? I can’t really say for certain. They both play to their strengths, yet also demonstrate ignorance to the flaws perpetrated by their plots. I guess for me, it depends on how much you want to see Thor’s character arc fleshed out versus watching Thor bash bad guy’s brains in with a magical metal hammer. I vote hammer. Thor: The Dark World is ambitious, gladiatorial-style fun that pits our super-powered fantasy heroes against each other and watches what chaos ensues. I halfway expect Thor to turn around and yell “Are you not entertained?!” to the audience after playing whack-an-elf with Malekith. I’d pay a ticket price just to see that on its own.

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“THOR” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Paramount Pictures

If he be worthy…

This is it. This is the make-it or break-it for the Marvel Cinematic Universe: the deal-breaker. Up until now, Marvel has had strong material to work with for its cinematic universe, with the combined powers of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man and Edward Norton’s Hulk filling the comic-book shoes well so far. But now we’re going into uncharted territory with Norse mythology. How are you supposed to make Norse Gods and legends work well with science-fiction, technology, and secret spy organizations without making it feel silly or on-the-nose?

The answer is you don’t: you amalgamate it and integrate it into their shared science-fiction universe to make it feel fluid and believable. Whatever silly experience you’re expecting to get out of a movie called Thor, you’re safe to throw your doubts out of the window now. Thor is exciting, fun, and fast-paced, whizzing with energy and incredible action and effects. And most impressively, it is epic, much like the Norse legends themselves are. I was not expecting a movie about the Norse God of Thunder to throw me off my feet this much. But then again, I didn’t know what to expect with a movie called Thor to begin with. Perhaps that helped me further appreciate it in the long run.

In this adaptation of both the Marvel comic and the Norse legend, Thor tells the story of the brash and arrogant God of Thunder, played here by Chris Hemsworth, who made his debut as James Kirk’s father in 2009’s Star Trek reboot. In this iteration, Thor is not a superhero like your regular Marvel folk, but instead the prince of Asgard, a fantastical world far removed from time and space. His father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is the king of Asgard, while the God of Mischief Loki (Tom Hiddleston) supports Thor as his brother.

One day, the Frost Giants of Jotunheim sneak their way into Asgard and kill a few soldiers in an act of aggression against the kingdom. After they are swiftly wiped out by Asgard’s security forces, Thor ventures into Jotunheim to declare war with the Frost Giants against his father’s wishes. After narrowly escaping Jotunheim with their lives intact, Odin strips Thor of his powers, takes away his hammer Mjolnir, and banishes him from Asgard as his punishment. Now trapped on Earth (or “Midgard” as he refers to it) without any way of getting back home, Thor has to find a way to regain his powers and once again become the God of Thunder that he was born to be.

My biggest concern going into this movie was how they were going to fit Norse mythology into a universe filled with Iron Men and Gamma-radiated monsters and make it feel believable. Out of all of Stan Lee’s notable creations, Thor is hands down the most plagiarized and the most preposterous. Nothing about him is interesting. A Norse God has superpowers and family issues? Please. Iron Man, the Hulk, and Spider-Man all have the same things, yet are infinitely more interesting because of the very personal problems they experience. Tony Stark and his ego and alcoholism. Bruce Banner and his anger issues. Peter Parker and his sense of guilt and responsibility. Many superheroes are popularized not just because of the powers they have or the costumes they wear, but because they have complex drama and personalities coupled with their action-filled comic book panels. Thor has always felt the least interesting or compelling, and that’s partially because of the wildly fantastical setting that he inhabits.

And yet, Thor works surprisingly well, mostly because of the convictions held by its writers and director. Screenwriters Ashley Miller and Zack Stenz, who also penned X-Men: First Class earlier this summer, demonstrates a clear understanding of Thor’s mythology and how it ties in to the nuance and appeal of the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Yes it’s technically a fantasy film, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels like another superhero action romp where characters zip, zoom, and fly into each other as the screen explodes into an exciting, color-filled visual effects spectacle. Part of that is because the film smartly blurs the lines between fantasy and science-fiction, blending both of the genre’s characteristics to make the film flow into one believable narrative. As one character observes in the film, “Magic is just science we don’t understand yet.” That quote comes from author Arthur C. Clarke.

Yet the film works on a dramatic level as well, with Hemsworth and Hiddleston’s chemistry feeling like actors interacting in a stage play, not as two superheroes flying into their own battles. There’s a very distinctive reason why: it’s because they’re being directed by actor Kenneth Branagh, who has made a career for himself as the “Shakespeare guy” in Hollywood (seriously, look at his filmography. He’s helmed adaptations of Shakespeare’s Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet, and that doesn’t even include his stage credits). Approaching Thor like he would with any Shakespearean drama, Branagh lets the actors loose and allows them to have fun with their roles, with them being equally over-the-top, boisterous, dramatic, accentuated, and theatrical all at once. Oh, these characters definitely would not be believable as human beings. But as Norse Gods of ancient legend? They’re impeccable.

Hemsworth and Hiddleston serve their roles enthusiastically, and they work so well together that they could be just as entertaining by themselves without the help of added effects. The action and the visuals are dazzling and spectacular, making you feel like you really are in Asgard, Jotunheim, or Midgard watching Thor whack every enemy marching towards him. And the music by Patrick Doyle is beautiful and uplifting, evoking a sense of grandeur and adventure that feels appropriate for an epic like this.

If there is any weakness to the film it is its second act, which takes the momentum the first act builds up to and brings it to a screeching halt. In the second act, Thor loses his powers and is navigating Earth like a clueless goof that acts like he suddenly forgot how to behave and interact like a normal human. My problem with these scenes is that at the beginning and end of the film, we’re experiencing the action in Asgard, and it overwhelms you with incredible visual scope and spectacle. Then we’re transported to Earth with Thor and suddenly everything becomes so… dull. The visuals take an obvious step back and it looks and feels more like a SyFy channel television movie than it does as a Marvel production. Thor is thrusted through comedic slapstick moments, making him look pretty stupid in the wake of all of the lightning-fueled action he was performing earlier. These scenes feel disjointed, jarring, and removed from the rest of the picture, almost as if it’s another movie we’re watching entirely. I have no problem with taking away Thor’s powers for the sake of added drama or conflict. I do mind the stylistic changes that do not blend well with the rest of the picture.

Still, Thor is loads of fun, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it. Marvel is starting to develop a knack for making their underappreciated heroes shine in the spotlight. Remember years ago when we thought Robert Downey Jr. was going to be a bust in Iron Man? Now we have Chris Hemsworth stepping into the shoes of Thor, and he’ll be joining up with the rest of the Avengers next year with a metal man, a giant green ogre, and a red-white-and-blue boy scout. Thor is the God of Thunder. He’ll fit right in.

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“THE INCREDIBLE HULK” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Universal Studios

Hulk smash puny critic! 

Bruce Banner is not a hero. One would be wrong for mistaking him as one. He is not proud or triumphant, he doesn’t wear a cape, and he doesn’t “save the day” as someone like Superman or Batman would. No, Bruce is a timid, shallow, and fearful young fellow, one that grips with a double-persona in him that’s angry, destructive, and vengeful all at once. His story is not one of happiness or hopefulness. It is in essence a tragedy, not unlike that of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, except in this case Mr. Hyde is a giant, green raging monster that says “Hulk smash!” every time he punches something.

In this second go-around at adapting one of comic book’s most recognizable characters, The Incredible Hulk retells Banner’s transformation into Marvel’s not-so-jolly green giant, with Fight Club actor Edward Norton taking the part over from Erica Bana this time around. In this iteration of the Hulk, Bruce is on the run from General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) and the U.S. military, who wants to take Banner’s gamma-radiated blood and weaponize it for their own uses. Desperate for a cure for his angry, green, muscle-infused transformation, Banner enlists in the help of his lover Betty (Liv Tyler) and Dr. Samuel Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson) to search for a cure, finally freeing himself from the monster within that is the incredible Hulk.

Since this is the second live-action adaptation of the Hulk in less than five years, it’s only fair to assume the comparison’s viewers are going to make from this version to Ang Lee’s Hulk released in 2003. As this is the case, you should know that I wasn’t a fan of that version. I did like a lot of things about it: the nuanced, quietly disturbed performances of Eric Bana and Nick Nolte, the creative comic book panel-esque transitions between shots, and the exploration of disturbed psychology developed from childhood trauma. There were a lot of creative elements in that film, and Lee deserves credit for at least branching out and trying new things in the superhero genre.

The key issue with that film was the pacing. The run time dragged out grudgingly, many shots didn’t pertain to what was going on in its scenes, and the movie just simply wasn’t fun. It was interesting for sure, but it lacked the suspense and excitement needed for a movie like Hulk to work. Observe, for instance, if Spider-Man or X-Men dragged out at the exasperating pace as Hulk did. Those movies would get boring pretty quickly, wouldn’t they?

I start my review by reliving the previous’ strengths and failures because The Incredible Hulk embodies the exact opposite of those. Hulk was an insightful, if meandering drama that had moments of superhero action in it. The Incredible Hulk is a full-blooded gamma-radiated monster-thriller that enthusiastically smashes through as much property damage as it can cause. It isn’t dramatic, insightful, or even significantly moving, and neither is it required to be. Part of a movie’s success is by playing to its strengths and weaknesses, and The Incredible Hulk demonstrates a sound understanding of both.

The crucial element to this is director Louis Leterrier, who helmed the first two Transporter movies before The Incredible Hulk. Framing it as an homage to the Bill Bixby 1978 television series, Leterrier plays the film’s elements to his advantage, pulling out thrills and excitement in the slightest of methods. Take, for instance, an early chase scene involving Banner, Ross, and a squad of military soldiers. Despite how it’s essentially another generic movie chase, the sequence was surprisingly thrilling, and that’s because of all of the elements in play here. The editing from Apocalypto’s John Wright was quick-paced and attentive, cutting briskly between each character’s perspective while at the same time not losing focus on the action. The music by Craig Armstrong is suspenseful and riveting, building up to a thematic opera that evokes the same sensation of those classic 1980’s monster movies. And the cinematography by Peter Menzies Jr. perfectly captures Bruce’s paranoia in this scene, with his biggest concern being not evading the soldiers or getting out unscathed, but rather not becoming so tense to the point where he transforms and causes harm to the people around him.

Leterrier uses these elements to turn seemingly simple moments into extraordinary ones, heightening tension and escalating excitement. Imagine what happens when Bruce breaks out into anger and goes Hulk destructive on everything in his path? While the smaller moments work surprisingly well, the film’s real value comes in its visual spectacle, where Hulk rams into soldiers, lifts and crushes cars, leaps and climbs tall structures, roars like a wild animal, and angrily smashes into as many objects as he can. In most action movies, the protagonist is usually in the more vulnerable position and has to face impossible odds stacked against him. I find it interesting that in this context the role is reversed and that Hulk’s enemies are the ones at a disadvantage against this giant, ruthless behemoth. It develops an interesting catharsis for the character, or at least, as much as it can possess in the midst of mindless superhero monster action violence.

The performances, while serviceable, are nothing spectacular enough to be memorable. The story is uninspired and feels stock compared to other action thrillers (seriously, read the script and tell me how much it reminds you of Jason Bourne). And while the final fight in the movie is climactic and exciting, the movie’s villain is just a mirror match to the Hulk and has no personal investment beyond that.

Still, how much you end up liking The Incredible Hulk depends on what you’re looking for in a Hulk movie to begin with. For me, I’m looking for action, and lots of it. The Incredible Hulk has that in spades. While not narratively impressive, The Incredible Hulk has enough dynamic action, awe-inspiring spectacle, and reckless destruction that makes you root for the big, angry green giant regardless. At the very least, let’s agree that this version of the Hulk is better than Ang Lee’s variation. I reiterate: the catchphrase is “Hulk Smash,” not “Hulk Talk You To Death.”

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