Tag Archives: The Avengers

“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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“DOCTOR STRANGE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The Marvel universe, but stranger.

It’s so hard to be unique in the day and age of the modern superhero epic. We’re relatively familiar with the formula by now. Guy X gets superpowers, Guy X goes through training to learn how to use powers, Guy X meets Guy Y who becomes his arch nemesis, both Guys have epic fight where Guy X wins and ultimately accepts his superhero destiny. In just one sentence, I’ve more or less named the outline of multiple superhero movies, from Superman all the way to The Avengers. And make no mistake: this is the exact same outline for Doctor Strange as well.

This much is how Doctor Strange is similar to its superheroic peers. Where it’s different is in its execution, in how it handles its title character not as a larger-than-life action hero, but as a man, fatally egotistical, selfish, eccentric, ignorant, and most of all, flawed. This is not a guy who wraps a cape around himself and fights for truth, justice, and the American way. This is the guy who looks at the cape and scoffs, asking why he should put it on if it looks so ridiculous on him.

Perhaps his flaws are exactly why we relate to Stephen Strange as much as we do in the film. In Iron Man, Tony Stark was a war profiteer and shameless opportunist who repented of his ways once he realized the repercussions of his actions. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne was a broken and resentful young man bent on revenge before realizing that it would only sink him into a deeper, darker place. For Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the brilliant surgeon who is as thick-headed and self-centered as he is skilled and talented. Great doctor. Awful person.

This is all before Strange gets into a devastating car crash that crushes his hands and permanently damages the nerves in them, removing his ability to be a doctor. He spends all of his time and money to repair his hands, only to come up short in every direction he turns. His last ditch effort is to visit a monk called The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) in Nepal, who has helped individuals with impossible recoveries from all around the world. What Strange doesn’t realize is that he’s about the be flung into a world full of sorcery and supernatural forces, and he’s somehow at the heart of it all.

First things first: the visual effects. I know they’re usually my first positive point of mention in most superhero movies, even in bad ones like Batman V. Superman. But Doctor Strange is on a visual caliber on a whole another level. In an early action sequence, sorcerers are shifting buildings, roads, architectures all around them, all while whipping out weapons and kung-fu fighting each other on constantly shifting walls, pillars, windows, ledges, and walkways. In a later scene, Strange is thrown through the multiverse, a constantly-shifting panorama of space that looks like you’re looking through the lens of a kaleidoscope. In most superhero movies, the visual appeal comes from the action scenes and how explosively people can punch or throw each other. But in Doctor Strange, the appeal is in the scenery surrounding Strange, how the sorcerers interact with environments, and how they affect the upside-down, wayward fights that are so mindbogglingly perplexing. Not since Avatar or Inception have the visuals been so sensory that they felt more like an out-of-body experience rather than a cinematic one.

But the visual effects are not the only impressive thing with this film: its also in how they are used. Director Scott Derrickson, who before this has made the equally atmospheric Sinister, smartly uses the visuals not for blockbuster spectacle, but as advancement for the story. In most action movies, the film usually builds up to some action-packed, destructive, prolonged fight that ends with a lot of property damage and civilian casualties. That is what most gripes were with 2013’s Man of Steel, at least. But here, the climax doesn’t involve destroying a city block, but rather trying to save one, as well as the many lives that are on it. I’m not going to reveal any spoilers, but in an entertainment industry that celebrates violence and killing, it’s nice to see a movie that is the antithesis of that, and looks for a smarter, more thoughtful conclusion rather than the more adrenaline-fueled one.

The cast is on par with the rest of the film’s spectacle. Swinton is fierce yet serene as the Ancient One, a mentor figure that isn’t as innocent and angelic as she may appear. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a companion of Strange’s named Mordo, and while most movie sidekicks are passionate loyalists who could never betray their beloved hero, Mordo here has his own motivations and reasonings that make him a complex, fascinating character in his own right. And Mads Mikkelsen portrays the movie’s villain, and while he is slightly typecast, he at least plays the role with passion and intimidation, making him one of the more memorable recent villains in the Marvel universe.

But the most impressive performance is easily Benedict Cumberbatch’s. The more movies you watch him in, the more you see his range as an actor and how he can do different roles so well. Seeing him portray real-life figures in The Fifth Estate and The Imitation Game, then watching him embrace villainous roles in Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Hobbit movies, you wondered how exactly he was going to approach Doctor Strange as something he’s never been before: a superhero. He brings exactly to Doctor Strange what he brings with his other roles: charisma and authenticity. His American accent makes him almost unrecognizable as the good doctor, and the earnest, yet self-centered way he carries himself makes him all the more believable, making Stephen Strange feel more human rather than hero.

Rumors have been swirling around that Doctor Strange might take over for Iron Man as the new face of the MCU. After seeing this movie, I wouldn’t mind that one bit. Cumberbatch plays him as a charismatic, narcissistic, almost Shakespearean character that is regretful of his old self that looks to start anew. Cumberbatch’s performance in conjunction with the film’s writing makes Doctor Strange a very fun, relatable, and likeable character, if not a great superhero already.

Does Doctor Strange break barriers for the superhero genre? Well no, not if you’re comparing it to the likes of Captain America: Civil War, which challenges the heroes morally as it does physically. But for what Doctor Strange does do, it does well, and it stands firmly alongside its Marvel family, including the likes of Iron Man and Spider-Man. This is one doctor you won’t regret calling.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR” Review (✫✫✫✫)

A war of humans, not heroes. 

I’m going to make a bold claim here. Captain America: Civil War is the best MCU movie to be made to date.

I know, I know, I’m probably a little overzealous when I say that. Except that I’m not. I’m fully aware of what its competition is. There are two other Marvel movies that I can compare Captain America: Civil War with. Those two are Iron Man and The Avengers. All three of them are exciting, suspenseful, nail-biting, eye-widening entertainment that are just as fun and memorable as they are emotional and meaningful. They’re not just great superhero dramas. They’re great human dramas.

But Captain America: Civil War is especially unique to even these entries. How? The biggest reason is because it isn’t formulaic. In Iron Man and The Avengers, we had our heroes, our villains, and they went at each other like rock-em sock-em robots. Granted, there’s deeper insight and perspective than just the two-dimensional hero/villain foreplay, but you can’t deny the framework that’s there. There’s a clear cut good guy and bad guy, as there is in most superhero movies.

But that black-and-white sense of morality isn’t well defined in Captain America: Civil War. In fact, there isn’t really an established sense of right and wrong in the picture, just characters whose ideals and values clash violently with each other. You can argue that there is a quote-unquote “villain” in the movie, but he’s more of a viewer than an active participant to the conflict involved. If we have to go by titles in this movie, what we have then is hero against hero, Avenger against Avenger, and friend against friend. The ensuing action is nothing else but thrilling, thought-provoking, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking.

In this sequel to both Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Age of Ultron, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) leads a new team of Avengers, consisting of Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). After an international event involving the Avengers ends in high casualties, General Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) and Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) step in to introduce the Sokovia Accords, which states that the Avengers would no longer be a private organization, but instead will be employed and assigned missions by a United Nations panel.

There are two perspectives to the Accords. On one hand, the Accords would give a new level of accountability to the Avengers. They would be restricted in where they could go and what they could do, and the public casualties in turn could be lessened. Plus, the Avengers would now get paid for all of their superheroing. On the other hand, this could put a level of control and interference on the Avengers that would prevent them from doing the most good. Plus, being assigned to report to a panel leaves them vulnerable for manipulation, forcing them to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise.

Iron Man leads the side that’s for the Accords: Cap leads the side that’s against it. But regardless of both sides, there’s another player in the field whose looking to manipulate both sides to his advantage. And neither side realizes it until its too late.

The second Marvel movie to be directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo and the fourth to be written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, Captain America: Civil War is a superhero movie ripe with context, a movie that asks uncomfortable questions that we would much rather remain unanswered. Just like how The Winter Soldier related its plot to today’s world of government control, survaillance, and corruption, Civil War also relates to real-world issues that appeals just as much to reality as they do to fantasy.

Take, for instance, the introduction of the Sokovia Accords. These documents, much like the connection between S.H.I.E.L.D. and H.Y.D.R.A. in The Winter Soldier, presents the theme of government interference and how those implications affect our world. Yes, the Accords would impose an element of control and responsibility over the heroes, but at what cost? This is a situation where civil liberties are being traded for security, and the question is raised on whether its a good trade or not. Juxtaposing this idea of control in between our heroes raises very important questions: questions that are startlingly resemblant of our world abundant with government surveillance and manipulation.

But the movie doesn’t suffer under its philosophical weight. This is still one of those fast-paced, funny, exciting Marvel movies that you’ve come to love. It’s just now a fast-paced, funny, exciting action movie that has deeper insight and drama than the previous entries did. The issues involved draw us deeper into the film’s conflict and to each of the outcomes that these characters face.

There are two of these characters that I haven’t mentioned yet. One of them is the rebooted Peter Parker/ Spider-Man, who is played here by Tom Holland as opposed to the recently discontinued Andrew Garfield. Holland’s appearance in the film is brief yet significant, and while he doesn’t serve a role as important as the others, his charisma, immaturity, and innocent charm makes him for a very entertaining and memorable character, one who sticks out in my mind just as much as Captain America and Iron Man. To be rebooted in just two years time is definitely too soon, and part of me wonders how well Garfield would have done if he had been given the same opportunities as Holland was. That doesn’t take away from the fact that Holland still wins us over and sticks out in our minds just as strongly as Garfield and Toby Maguire does. He makes me very excited to see what’s in store for him for his eventual return in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The other character is T’Challa, a.k.a. the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). If there is a neutral side in this conflict, it is in T’Challa, although at one point he does fight on Iron Man’s team. He’s so great because unlike Iron Man or Cap, his perspective is the most human out of the other players. He is the citizen Cap and Iron Man are fighting to protect. He is the one that faces the most casualty out of any of the other players. This natural perspective into the film is so important, because it demonstrates an investment that isn’t coming from another superhero: it’s coming from the victim of both sides of the conflict. That pain and confusion is so important to understand Captain America: Civil War not just as a Marvel movie, but as a complex drama on its own two legs.

The performances, the action, the visual effects, and the direction all accumulate masterfully, and the Russo brothers demonstrate a better understanding of their characters than they did in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. What we have left, then, is an unchallenged masterpiece, a moral dilemma packaged as a superhero blockbuster that excites us just as much as it challenges us. Iron Man and The Avengers both challenged themselves morally and ethically, but not so much to the point where it’s entire plot was founded around it. There was still a right or wrong in those movies. There isn’t in Captain America: Civil War, and that makes it just as compelling as it is entertaining. The one downside to this film’s success: now the Russo brothers have to follow this up with Avengers: Infinity War. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. I would personally guess that they can’t do it. But I’ve been wrong before.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” Review (✫✫✫)


Patriotism replaced with fast-paced spy action and conspiracy.

In his review for the Toronto Sun, writer Jim Slotek says that “Captain America: The Winter Soldier is actually a Jason Bourne film masquerading as a superhero movie.” Right there is your first problem. Captain America is not Jason Bourne. He does not need to be Jason Bourne. Captain America is Captain America. He has his own arc, history, complexions, motivations, and conflicts that make him a fascinating character in his own right. He is as noble as he is heroic, and in just the two appearances he’s had in the MCU so far, he’s already cemented himself as an icon and staple in this expanding universe.

Tonally, there’s a severe shift in between The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier. Captain America: The First Avenger was exciting, old-fashioned, comic-book fun, and had the look, feel, and nostalgia of those 1940’s pulp magazines. The Winter Soldier, in comparison, feels like a dark, gritty espionage thriller, and our hero wears a red, white, and blue costume instead of the atypical black motorcycle jacket and jeans. This time around, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) isn’t fighting Nazi-clad super soldiers or aliens from outer space. This time, Cap is after the Winter Soldier, a expert assassin who has a metal arm and has been operating for decades under the world’s nose. When one of Cap’s closest friends gets caught in the crossfire, Cap goes on the hunt for the Winter Soldier, along with an underlying conspiracy that he’s quickly unraveling.

The script is easily the best thing about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Screenwriters Marcus Freely and Warren McAllen, who also penned the first Captain America movie as well as Thor: The Dark World, have made an incredibly thoughtful and politically-driven film, a story that, if put into book format, would arguably be more compelling than the movie is. Without giving too much away, Cap gets stuck into a position that pits him both against his own country and against his enemies, making him question himself and the ideals that he’s been fighting for all along. Is America the same country he knew during World War II? Is there any more life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the American dream? Is the American dream even alive any more? All of these questions are what drives the story and its characters forward, and sets up a very hard-hitting, close-to-home conflict with our favorite Captain. This is a movie that has severe repercussions towards the future of the MCU, and the twists are so hard-hitting that they surprised me, even with the ones that I was expecting.

The plot is sound and strong for the purposes of the film. But the problem doesn’t exist in the screenplay, it exists in how it’s handled. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, whose last film credit before this was 2006’s You, Me and Dupree, didn’t see a superhero story in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They saw a political thriller, and they decided to live up to that in every way that they could.

Take, for instance, the choreography and the motion of the action in the film. It is straight up Jason Bourne. In Captain America: The First Avenger, the action was unique, creative, and dynamic, with Cap flipping around with his shield and beating up HYDRA soldiers in classic, swashbuckling fashion, making it fun and refreshing escapism from all of the action fanfares we’ve gotten throughout the years. Here, the action feels like a retread. We’ve seen this sort of lightning-quick, fast-paced fighting in virtually every action thriller, from James Bond all the way to Mission Impossible. Why should The Winter Soldier feel any more special?

The thing that makes Captain America unique, especially in The First Avenger, is his patriotic loyalty and his unwavering sense of justice. He looks out for the little guy. He cares about such things as self-respect and manners. He won’t throw a punch unless he has to. At heart, he is this small, skimpy, honest, good-hearted kid from Brooklyn, and this is the kid that Dr. Erskine saw in the first Captain America. Here, he’s in full hero mode as he kicks, punches, tackles, slams, and throws shields at all of the bad guys, and brings everything down all around him, including buildings, bridges, and S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarriers.

Tell me, where is the patriotism? Where is the nobility? Where is the sense of joy and adventure in this movie? In its two hour runtime, we don’t get a strong sense of these things that make Captain America who he is. What we get instead is quickly-edited action, punctuated in between moments of heavy exposition and backstory, which always feels like its building up to something big, but never really pays off.

I say this again: Captain America is not an action hero! He is not Jason Bourne, or Ethan Hunt, or James Bond, or John McClane. He is Steve Rogers, and he builds this identity of Captain America to protect those who can’t protect themselves. But The Winter Soldier does not focus on the theme of protection, unlike The First Avenger. Instead, it chooses to focus on distrust and political paranoia. In doing that, it takes away something very important from Captain America: his sense of character.

As it stands, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a good movie and not a great one. It’s serviceable in what it needs to do, and not much else. Instead of likening to Cap’s sense of bravery and heroism, we instead look to his aggression and fighting. In doing that, we lose a part of him that we wish we had back. In this day and age, dry, drab, joyless action movies are Hollywood’s currency, and all of the world is buying. The deeper we sink into this culture of entertainment and violence, the more we need our favorite Captain to stand above it. 

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“IRON MAN 3” Review (✫✫✫1/2)


Tony Stark facing fire and PTSD.

Take a breath before you yell at me about my star rating, Marvelites. Yes, I know you’re upset. I know Iron Man 3 changed one of your favorite characters. I get it. I would be upset too, if that happened to one of my favorite comic book heroes. But you have to understand that this is a movie and not a comic book. It’s not trying to accomplish the same thing. It’s playing by different rules. And since it’s a different ballgame, we need to judge it fairly, on its own terms as a movie and not as a Marvel property.

If you’re able to do that, you will find that Iron Man 3 is quite excellent. It is a grand extravaganza of smart writing, great acting, witty comedy, and explosive action that’s all bow-tied together into one climactic and exciting superhero blockbuster. You couldn’t possibly get a better follow-up to The Avengers than this.

Set a few months after the events of The Avengers, Tony Stark, once portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., is struggling with post-traumatic anxiety attacks after fending off the alien invasion of New York with his other fellow heroes in The Avengers. While recovering, Tony is faced with a new threat: the Mandarin (Sir Ben Kingsley) the heinous terrorist leader of the Ten Rings army, who wages a one-man war against the United States of America. When one of Tony’s friends becomes injured in the crossfire, Tony vows to find the Mandarin, fight him, and bring him to justice for his malevolent crimes.

The first of the Iron Man trilogy not directed by filmmaker/actor Jon Favreau — who also portrays Tony’s driver Happy Hogan — Iron Man 3 is instead helmed by writer/director Shane Black, who is most known for directing Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and writing the first two Lethal Weapon movies. Seeing him at work here is a blessing to the superhero industry. His wit, sarcasm, and charisma come off of the pages as fluently as Stark’s highly entertaining ego does. Black provides great dialogue for Tony, and often the delivery of the lines result in wild hilarity and laughter. Take, for example, one scene where a small, blond child with glasses comes up to Stark in a restaurant asking for his autograph.

“I liked you in A Christmas Story, by the way,” Stark quipped.

Blacks writing was the best thing that could have happened to Iron Man 3. The writing feels so fluid and natural that Stark might as well be writing the script for himself.

Speaking of Stark, it’s impressing at how well Robert Downey Jr. inhabits Tony Stark yet again. He always seems to just disappear into this role, and he always portrays Stark in a crass, crude, witty, yet concerned and somewhat heroic fashion. There is such fascination with his character that he keeps watchers interested even when there isn’t something blowing up on the screen. In this case even more so, since Tony is facing the added complexion of PTSD and panic attacks in the film. This humanized the character in a different way than the previous Iron Man movies did, as we see him less as this larger-than-life egotistical figure, but more as this shallow, frightened, and troubled young man. It brought to mind the experiences of war-torn veterans after coming home from a long battle. And yes, I know they’re different scenarios. They still invite the same reaction, which is sympathy.

And then there is the action. Boy, is there the action. Similarly to how The Avengers kept building its suspense by repeatedly raising the stakes of the threat, Iron Man 3 also builds excitement and anticipation through every explosion, every punch, every rocket, every bullet and every armor piece Stark puts on. In one of the most exciting moments of the picture, Tony assembles an armada of all of his robot suits, remotely-controlled by his A.I. companion. J.A.R.V.I.S. I thought two things when I saw this: 1) Why didn’t he bring these suits out during The Avengers? 2) Since J.A.R.V.I.S. can control his own suits, is there really a need for Tony to be Iron Man? I suspended both plot holes for the sake of enjoying the moment. Seeing robot suits and bad guys firing at each other in brilliant, mid-air acrobatic stunts was so much fun that it was easy to throw disbelief out the window. There are a few films that can do that, where they not only encourage you to suspend your criticisms, but they also succeed in doing that. Iron Man 3 succeeded in its task, and I found myself smiling a lot throughout the movie, even in the face of its flaws.

And then, of course, there’s the plot twist. How can I so easily accept it, whereas I know other comic book fans won’t be able to? I think it’s because Black saw a deeper story at play than the comic book’s mythos, and that is a story of conspiracy of deceit. Say it’s unfaithful. Say it’s inaccurate to the comics. You’re right in both statements. But you can’t deny that Iron Man 3 is a deftly intelligent story, a compelling drama, a quirky comedy, and an explosive action fest. Iron Man 3 is more than a great sequel. Iron Man 3 is great entertainment.

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“CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER” Review (✫✫✫)

I pledge allegiance to the first Avenger. 

If Iron Man is the best film out of this expanding Marvel universe, let Captain America: The First Avenger be the second best. It is exciting, stylish, suspenseful, dramatic, and has a patriotic energy to boot. If Captain America were any more American, he would stop being a captain and would become a bald eagle.

Based on the Marvel comic of the same name, Captain America: The First Avenger flashes back to the 1940’s to Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), a frail young man who wants to enlist in the military, despite his bone-thin figure. Everyone around Steve tells him he should give up on enlisting, including his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who himself is a U.S. Sergeant. But Steve doesn’t see himself doing anything else. He loves his country and what it stands for, and is willing to throw himself onto a live grenade for it if he has to. Despite his patriotic passion, every military inspection officer denies his eligibility to enlist due to his health.

Enter Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci). Erskine has created a chemical called the super soldier serum, which amplifies a person’s physical stature as well as their personality. Seeing Steve for his heart and not for his size, Erskine enlists him in the super soldier program and sees him grow: literally and figuratively. No longer the weak and passive man known as Steve Rogers, he has now become the powerful, noble super soldier known as Captain America.

Does the premise sound a little silly? Well, that’s because it is, and it’s supposed to be. Captain America: The First Avengers feels and breathes like a comic book, a fast-paced and energetic thrill ride that pops off the screen like the panels in those old pulp fiction comic books. It feels reasonably old-fashioned. It doesn’t project itself as a superhero movie as much as it does a swashbuckling action-adventure, and our main hero Captain America is its grandiose hero, not unlike Zorro or James Bond.

This tone is fitting for Captain America, and especially for director Joe Johnston, who previous directing experience included Jumanji and The Rocketeer. The fact that he was able to tap into those movies instead of Jurassic Park III and The Wolfman is a very good thing for Johnston, as it has allowed him to make a meaningful, action-packed blockbuster that has just as much fun with its characters as it does with its action. Just look at the cast’s diversity. Besides its leads, you have a supporting cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper, Neal McDonough, Toby Jones, and of course, Stanley Tucci. All of these characters are entertaining not because of the action sequences they go through, but because of their unique personalities, with Jones’ snark being the most entertaining out of the bunch.  One of my favorite scenes of him in the film involved a cliche shot where our hero passionately kissed his love interest before sweeping into battle. Jones takes advantage of the cliche as best he can: “I’m not kissing you,” he bluntly tells the Cap.

But the shining performances surprisingly comes from Evans and his antagonist, a Nazi general named Johann Schmidt, brilliantly played up by Hugo Weaving. Evans, whose most notable role before this was as the Human Torch in the incredibly campy 2005 film Fantastic Four, demonstrates a surprising level of versatility here. He exemplifies the ultimate underdog, displaying earnest and nobility whether he’s small and skinny or strong and stoic. He never displays an obvious external sense of emotion, but consistently expresses an internal one. You get a sense of purpose and motivation with this character, a man who desperately wants to be a part of something that everyone tells him he can’t be a part of. Evans personifies the character both physically and emotionally, and Weaving is effective in the villain’s role with appropriate grandiose and theatrics, serving as an appropriate foil for the Captain America character.

All the same, I’m most disappointed with the fact that we’re once again playing up this whole Avengers cinematic universe thing. The Avengers is right around the corner, and with studio heads knowing that, I think they tried too hard to tie in both movies at the climax, which features a twist so absurd and ridiculous that I want to compare it to the Ape Lincoln twist at the end of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes remake. Can’t Captain America just be allowed to breathe and live in his own story, much like Iron Man did in his own movie? Apparently that’s too much to ask for. We’re at the event now that everything has to build up to The Avengers. Even if the events in this movie had to happen, did they have to happen like this? Couldn’t it have been a post-credits scene, or maybe saved for The Avengers movie altogether? The way it is now, the resolution feels too forced and hammy. It takes away from the meaning of the rest of the story, and the sacrifice that Cap gives at the end of the film.

I know that Captain America sounds like a silly and ridiculous superhero. Before I went into this movie, that’s what I thought myself. Then again though, wasn’t Iron Man working against those same perceptions when his movie was released? Here is another superhero epic that is, at it’s heart, a fun, capable, and entertaining story that makes us believe in the skinny kid from Brooklyn. Red, white, and blue never looked so good on another superhero.

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“IRON MAN 2” Review (✫✫✫)

Literally, two Iron Men.

Let me stop your expectations right there. Iron Man 2 is not as good as Iron Man. It just isn’t. Granted, making anything better than Iron Man is damn near impossible. I think the only recent movie that can compete is The Dark Knight, albeit for very different reasons.

All the same, just because Iron Man 2 is not as good as Iron Man doesn’t mean it isn’t good at all. It just depends on what you’re looking for when you enter the theater, and what expectations you’re having that would affect your view of the picture.

I myself went in expecting a subpar sequel to Iron Man. I got just that. But just because it is subpar doesn’t mean it isn’t fun, and believe me: Iron Man 2 is all sorts of fun. Whether it’s in the action, the comedy, or in the performances, I was never bored, and I quite enjoyed seeing Robert Downey Jr. suit up a second time in the suit, even if it was less meaningful this time around.

Iron Man 2 picks up right after the events of the first Iron Man, where Tony went into a press conference and stupidly told everyone that he was Iron Man. I banged my head into my seat multiple times when that happened in Iron Man, and I repeated this action when Tony dropped out of a helicopter, flied around next to fireworks, and landed in a convention center, only to unmask himself in front of thousands of fans at the beginning of Iron Man 2.

I have one word for a person that would act like this in real life. The first half of that word rhymes with bass. The other half is hole.

This time around, Tony is pitted up against not one, but TWO bad guys. The first is Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian technician who holds a deep resentment against Tony considering his family’s history with the Starks. The other is Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), a wickedly genius business man who has all of Tony’s ego, but none of his charm. These two together make a terrible team that Tony needs to take down alongside his friend James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who suits up next to Tony as the War Machine.

…you get it? Iron Man 2? Two Iron Men? Ha ha ha.

The best thing about Iron Man 2 is also the best thing from the first Iron Man. Robert Downey Jr. once again proves how great of an actor he is both inside and outside the Iron Man armor. At this point, he is Tony Stark. It doesn’t even seem like he’s putting on a performance anymore. He’s inhabiting the character so naturally that he feels like he’s reacting more than he is acting. His mannerisms and expressions are on point, his line delivery acute, and his comedic timing perfect. Downey Jr. never falters in the film. Not even once.

And the action scenes are just as strong as they were in the first film. Well, maybe not as well. The first movie, after all, did have Tony fighting terrorists and war mongers, and carried more weight to it as it appealed more to reality than it did to fantasy.

Still, the action is fun and fast-paced. My particular favorite moment was when Tony and Rhodey team up to take on an army of Iron Man armor copycats. This scene was exciting to watch because really, this is the first time we see Tony facing a large-scale threat that aren’t fragile human beings. It was exciting and interesting to see Tony and Rhodey fighting with larger stakes in the midst. It shows that the Marvel universe knows how to grow and build upon its original elements.

So Downey Jr., the comedy, and the action is retained from the first movie. What isn’t? Well, for one thing, the tone is off. Iron Man 2 is more silly and less serious, and while it does make for a fun movie, it also makes for a less meaningful one. The movie has this strange sub-plot involving Tony’s mortality and his complicated history with his father. These are serious subjects that should have a lot of gravitas and weight to it, yet it feels removed and out of place here. We don’t care about Tony personally like we did in Iron Man. We just like watching him suit up and shooting snarky quips at his supporting cast.

I wonder, where exactly did director Jon Favreau go wrong? I think his mistake was focusing more on the plot and less on the character. The first Iron Man was a great character study, as well as an exciting action movie. That was due in part both to Robert Downey Jr.’s personification and Favreau’s understanding of the character. Then Iron Man struck a chord and was suddenly universally praised from both critics and fans alike. How on Earth was Favreau going to top that?

I think that, in the midst of production stress and unrealistic expectations, Favreau panicked and tried to force a story onto the character, rather than allowing the character to create the story himself. This is a movie that knows the notes, but it doesn’t know how to play them. It’s more interested in setup rather than payoff, and you can see that with all of the Easter eggs stuffed in the film, but with all of the underdeveloped characters in there as well.

Overall, I enjoyed Iron Man 2 and I had fun with it, but it was not as worthwhile an experience as Iron Man was. Isn’t that to be expected though? Sequels are a dominant force in today’s industry, and most of them are not only disappointment to their predecessors, but are just bad movies overall. Be grateful that we’ve got a few laughs and thrills and can enjoy Iron Man 2 for what it is.

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“FANTASTIC FOUR” Review (✫)

Not so fantastic.

That’s it. I give up. We will never have a good Fantastic Four movie in this lifetime that will do Marvel’s first superhero family justice. We have had four live-action bouts with the Fantastic Four now. The first one was never theatrically released. The next two installments was campy melodrama that should have premiered on SyFy. Now we have the newest reboot, and it’s safe to say this movie deserved the fate that the first movie suffered from.

The Fantastic Four team consists of Reed Richards (Miles Teller), Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Johnny Storm (Michael B. Jordan) and his adopted sister Sue (Kate Mara), with the third wheel being Latverian computer whiz Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who is an anti-social douchebag that is spoiled, rotten, selfish, privileged, and self-obsessed. King Joffrey from “Game of Thrones” is more well-mannered than this POS.

If you know anything ever about Marvel movies, you know the formula. Person X gets caught in an accident. Person X gains super powers. Person X struggles with said powers. Person X eventually learns to control them, fight the obviously-labeled baddie, and then commits himself to a life of fighting crime. The only difference between Fantastic Four and the other Marvel formula movies is that it’s more obvious with this film. And it’s persons instead of person.

In hindsight, Fantastic Four is not easy to adapt into film. For one thing, their powers are so complacent. A rubber man, an invisible woman, a human torch, and a rocky troll is not the ideal superhero team I would line up to see. The other problem, though, is their comic book origins. Compared to other heroes such as Spider-Man, Daredevil, Iron Man, and Captain America, the tone with the Fantastic Four comics is much more lighthearted and even comical. Be honest: can you even keep a straight face with a name as silly as “Fantastic Four”?

All the same though, the concept doesn’t matter as much as the payoff. This movie could have worked. The members of the Fantastic Four have vibrant personalities and character traits that make them both memorable and likable. That’s the reason why Marvel’s first family has survived all these years: it’s because they’re enduring. People relate to them, and despite their meta-human circumstances, their problems and emotions with each other are all human.

We didn’t relate to them as superheroes. We related to them as characters.

That’s a problem for this movie, though, because this movie neither has personality or character. Good lord, where do I begin? When the lineup for this movie’s cast was announced, I was skeptical at first, and I was right to be. Not only can none of the actors hold the screen presence on their own: their chemistry with each other was disastrously non-existent. The cast didn’t even seem to really care about their roles. Every half-hearted expression, every line of dialogue and every motion seems disinterested and bland. Nothing works when these actors are on the screen together.

Teller, for instance, is an atypical and complacent scientist character, a step down from his bravado performance full of passion and drive in last year’s Whiplash. Kebbell is just as forgettable as Teller is, except he’s more of an asshole about it. Mara is beautiful but witless, her character cluelessly wandering about as if she’s there just so the studio can say they’re gender diverse. Michael B. Jordan, who is a standout in movies like Chronicle and Fruitvale Station, appears here just so the studio can say they’re racial diverse.

Side-note: I’m all about racial diversity in movies, but if you’re going to cast two actors as siblings, at least have them be the same race. Saying Mara’s character is adopted doesn’t count as being diverse. It’s an obviously cheap effort to be labeled “racially diverse.” If you genuinely want to be racially diverse, recast everyone as African Americans. Don’t put in a half effort.

But out of all of the actors, I feel the most bad for Jamie Bell. He’s not even on the screen for most of the film: he’s replaced with this ugly gargoyle reject that looks like a combination of John Cena with a pile of rocks. I’m not even kidding, he looks freggin’ horrendous. What were the visual effects artists thinking with this? I get that Ben Grimm is supposed to be this big, ugly figure, but not this ugly. Not the kind of ugly that makes your vomit turn inside out, then go back into your stomach. It offends me to think that Bell was basically thrown into the tracking suit and have his performance replaced by this ugly CGI creation. With the other cast members, they at least have the opportunity to give a convincing performance before they fail. Bell isn’t even given the opportunity to fail. His performance is canned the minute the visual effects artists placed a 3D model over him. You could have cast a stunt double in this same role and get the same result from it: a big, bulky figure that just stiffly sits and stands like he has to go to the bathroom really bad. I haven’t seen a CGI creation this putrid since the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles from last year.

The movie’s flimsy, indistinct plot is just as bad as anything else is. What is the plot of this movie? Four people get superpowers, mope about it for a few hours, then have their final battle 20 minutes before the movie ends. That’s it. There’s no character building here, no heart, no humor, no unique elements or surprises to this film that makes it stand out from the standard superhero fare. The Avengers was just as fun, if not more so, for its characterizations and dialogue as it was with its action. Guardians of the Galaxy was wacky, clever, in-cheek fun that had a blast roasting itself. Shoot, even the original Fantastic Four movies had more charisma than this. This movie was so downtrodden, so serious, and so stupidly depressing that I felt like I was watching gothic fan fiction of the Fantastic Four. If you thought Man of Steel was too dark for a superhero movie, you haven’t seen Fantastic Four.

This is a disinteresting, joyless, illogical, poorly acted, written, produced, and directed experience. The cast must have heard the film’s whimsical title and wondered if they were on the wrong set.

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“ANT-MAN” Review (✫✫)

Fear me! I control ants! 

Here’s the perfect example of expectation affecting outcome. Let’s be honest: who was expecting anything out of Ant-Man? I know I wasn’t. I went in expecting a complacent, by-the-books, predictable superhero thriller. I left after getting that exact same thing.

Okay, maybe I’m being a little rough. The movie does have its moments, and it did at times give me slight enjoyment and chuckles. But how can individual moments replace an entire movie? If you compare Ant-Man to its other giant-sized movie counterparts (The Avengers, Iron Man, Captain America: The Winter Soldier), you will always arrive to the same word to describe it: smaller.

Taking place after the events of The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Ant-Man introduces Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a genius scientist that rivals the intellect of Iron Man’s father Howard Stark (John Slattery). After realizing that the government was seeking his Pym particles, which allows him to turn into Ant-Man, to be weaponized, Pym goes into retirement, hoping to protect his particles from the world so that they would never be used for nefarious purposes.

Enter Daniel Cross (Corey Stoll), Pym’s ex prodigy. In modern day, Cross re-created Pym’s particles in the form of Yellowjacket, a suit similarly designed to Ant-Man and outfitted with the same capabilities. Desperate to get the suit and to further protect his invention, Pym enlists the only individual who can help take up the Ant-Man mantle: Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), a notorious thief who has a knack for getting into places he doesn’t belong, and a daughter he’d do anything to see again after separating from her mother.

It’s true, most probably didn’t think much about a superhero named Ant-man when this project was originally announced. But to be fair, this film does have some merit, despite its low expectations. The best thing I can say about Ant-Man is this: its fun. Meagerly fun, yes, but it still counts.

Honestly though, that doesn’t surprise me much. The film was originally written and was supposed to be directed by Edgar Wright, who is most known for his comedic action films Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. If you’ve seen any of those films, you know that he’s a clever and well-versed filmmaker who knows how to balance action and comedy with drama. If I were a studio head, I would have taken one look at his filmography, thrown all of my money at him, and shouted “Take it! Take it all! Take it and make more!”

So what happened? Simply put, Marvel happened. After a few creative disagreements between himself and Marvel, Wright left and Peyton Reed was hired in his place. Reed directed The Break Up and Yes Man before helming Ant-Man. Yeesh.

Luckily, Ant-Man survived it’s lop-sided pre-production into release. Well, maybe “survived” isn’t an appropriate word. Dragged by its insect legs is more accurate.

The biggest complaint about Ant-Man is that it’s inconsistent. Moments of heartfelt drama collide with out-of-place comedy. Comedy is bogged down by moments of forced emotion. The only thing that is consistent in the film is its action, which is surprisingly innovative to its premise.

For instance: in the first scene where Scott shrinks as Ant-Man, he falls into a bathtub. Who would have thought falling in between droplets of water and cracks in the floor would be so exciting and interesting? The details we see when Scott shrinks are extraordinarily eye-popping, immersing us in this whole new world we didn’t see before in regular proportion. Seeing Scott traverse into ant hills that turn big when he shrinks, communicating with insects his size when he’s small, and finding new locations inside smaller ones are among some of the fantasies we see when he’s Ant-Man. Seeing him fight as Ant-Man is the most fun. Who knew that a Thomas the Train set could be so dangerous to two miniature super-beings?

Other than the visuals though, the movie is sub-standard. It’s cookie-cutter in about every sense of the word. The comedy, the drama, and the acting is all forced for effect, and in the process, it has none. For Pete’s sake, even the movie’s villain is so bland. Who cares about some bratty little business executive who steals a powered suit for money, fame, and power? That was Obadiah Stane in 2007’s Iron Man, and he was a much more compelling villain than this standard archetype of an antagonist.

It’s true, this film didn’t have much to go on when originally announced, but the idea doesn’t count as much as the execution. People doubted Guardians of the Galaxy when that came out, and people reversed their opinions and said it was greater than The Avengers after they saw the film. I believe those same people will watch Ant-Man with no reaction as he flies in the air and goes “splat” across their window pane.

Footnote: If you do decide to watch Ant-Man, do not watch it in 3D. It has some of the worst particle effects I’ve ever seen in a 3D conversion, and I had to lift my glasses every five minutes to see how much brighter the film was without the glasses. I didn’t know that Ant-Man was supposed to be such a dark picture.

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“THE AVENGERS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The ultimate example of comic-book superhero movies. 

I remember opening a comic book for the first time in my life when I was just a small kid. The small pamphlet fascinated me: by just a flip of a page, an entirely different world was created. A world where normal people gained super powers, wore red capes and tights, fought evil wherever it may exist, and made the world a safer place by the end of the day. In a small, poor neighborhood town where I was the only white kid in a predominantly Latino school building, it provided me a sense of relief and sanction from much bullying and torment I experienced from the other school children back in the day. It provided me freedom from the accursed world I lived in: it provided me a means of escape.

And now here I am, 15 years later, watching a live-action re-enactment of the world I discovered and loved all those many years ago. The Avengers is masterfully fantastic. It is an epic superhero tale, portraying the never-ending conflict of good and evil. It is an action movie with surprising finesse, switching from scenes of explosive energy and action to other scenes with insight, humor, and heartfelt emotion. It is a faithful re-production of multiple universes we have come to love in the past four years, and re-adapts them faithfully and full of energy in this film. But the core of this film’s success is this: that the film’s story and themes are emotional, honest, and truthful, and fleshes out its heroes to make them what they are: humans. All fighting for very human, realistic, and understandable reasons.

If you’ve seen the previous Marvel entries, you already know what this movie is about. The Avengers is a group of superheroes brought together to fight the battles that human beings never could.  Who are these heroes?  You would know most of them.

Tony Stark “Iron Man” (Robert Downey Jr): A billionaire playboy/philanthropist that has a genius-level-intellect that has allowed him to build and fight in a suit of armor.

Bruce Banner “Hulk” (Mark Ruffalo): A scientist exposed to gamma radiation, who turns into a giant, brutish beast with monstrous strength when he becomes angry.

Natasha Romanoff “Black Widow” (Scarlett Johansson): An agile and intelligent spy that is more skilled and capable than most other men.

Clint Barton “Hawkeye” (Jeremy Renner): A masterful marksman who can aim and shoot with his bow and various arrows in a matter of milliseconds.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth): The Norse God of thunder who can manipulate lightning with the power of his mighty hammer, Mjolnir.

Steve Rogers “Captain America” (Chris Evans): A super soldier frozen through time who can beat criminals to a pulp, as well as wielding a shield cast in a rare metal called “vibranium”.

You’ve seen these heroes before, most of them in their own respective movies.  All with their own stories, origins, conflicts, and themes that were explored along with their respective characters. My original worry with this film was, despite the huge expectations people were having, I was afraid this movie would let people down. It does, after all, have a lot on its plate: adapting over six superheroes into one action-packed movie is no easy task. We have Batman Forever and Spiderman 3 as evidence of that, where they had trouble of adapting even four super-powered beings to the big screen.

This film, though, has surprising finesse. Writer-director Joss Whedon adapts these characters with such child-like love and faithfulness, I feel their themes and stories from their previous films carry over to this film with them. It doesn’t feel like an adaptation, or an act of cruel financial commercialism. It lives up to the hype. The characters in this film live and breathe their uniqueness we have come to know and love from the previous Marvel movies. We feel Iron Man’s sarcasm and big ego, Thor’s sense of responsibility and brotherhood, Banner’s fear, frustration, and anger, and Steve’s sense of honor, patriotism, loss, and duty. Through the film’s dialogue and references to prior films, we sense Whedon’s pure intentions underneath the action, and we respect it. We realize he isn’t making just another action movie; he is making a superhero movie.  One with upmost faithfulness and loyalty to its own universes.

Impressive also, are the actors, but I don’t need to tell you that. We’ve seen them in prior films, so we already know they are good. I will comment then, on something we haven’t seen yet: their chemistry with each other. My word. This is what makes the Avengers, The Avengers. The actor’s chemistry with each other is spot-on, and in-tune. Whether it is a scene involving humorous, sarcastic dialogue, or another scene with painful realism and emotional truth to it, there is reality being shown in every single shot when an actor is with another Avenger on-screen. I can’t accurately describe it to you and do it justice. You need to see the film to understand their relationship with each other.

People are also wondering, of course, if the visual side of the film delivers. The answer is yes, but it isn’t just because it looks great; it is because of how they handled the great visuals they had for this picture. Too many times are we given films that have great visual CGI and explosions to overwhelm the audience with, but we have no suspense, excitement, or surprise to go along with it. It doesn’t make for an entertaining film. All that is left is a predictable action film that’s empty amidst the flat storytelling and redundant action sequences that just shows one explosion after another.

The Avengers isn’t like that. It doesn’t use its action as an excuse to fall flat and give up on entertaining its audience. Its excitement is relentless. Its suspense builds, and builds, and builds until we can take it no longer.  We scramble in our seat as we attentively watch what will happen next for our heroes.

This is the kind of excitement we need in superhero movies: the kind that is reminiscent of those kids watching Saturday morning cartoons, the ones that have you sitting on the edge of your seat with your bowl of “Captain Crunch” in order to see if your favorite hero does, in fact, save the day. It is this suspense and tension that builds The Avengers to incredible cinematic heights, and makes for some truly entertaining, memorable, and iconic moments in the picture.

The Avengers is the ultimate example of a comic book superhero movie. Whedon has a great subject to play with, sure. But his film is a great one not because he solely depends on the idea to be successful. This film is a success because he treats it the way it is supposed to be treated: as an exciting action-blockbuster that retains humanity to its characters, spirit to its humor, and excitement in its own story. I know somewhere in this world, some little ten-year old kid will watch this movie, and will one day be inspired to make his own superhero movie. It’s kind of depressing, though. It doesn’t really get much better than this.

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