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Captain Marvel (2019)

My knowledge of Marvel’s actual comic books extends to a bit just beyond the original Secret Wars, plus Grant Morrison’s 2004-ish run of New X-Men. The character of Carol Danvers has never occupied very much of my headspace within that. During one of those periods where – I think – her fans would tell you that her writers were just screwing with the character to be meaninglessly cruel, her powers got stolen by Rogue back when Rogue was a villain. This was when Rogue was drawn to be deliberately ugly instead of a supermodel. So Carol occasionally showed up in Uncanny X-Men when I was occasionally reading it, with a new power set and the name Binary.

About fourteenish years ago, I had a lot of extra cash and briefly entertained myself by buying most of Marvel’s line of Essentials reprints, and DC’s similar Showcase Presents. I bought the Ms. Marvel collection and I’m not sure why I kept it, except out of morbid curiosity over the unbelievably awful ending. Apparently the whole “Binary” business came about from X-Men writer Chris Claremont taking perfectly understandable objection to a previous writer being so clueless about what to do with a strong female lead character that he had her get brainwashed and pregnant while the Avengers stood by thinking how nice it was that Carol finally found someone to settle down and birth some babies with. A later writer decided that what Carol really needed was to become an alcoholic.

So in the last decade, some creative teams who want to actually portray the character as heroic and inspiring, led by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, have apparently turned this mess of a character into something that a younger and more clued-in fanbase has loved. I haven’t read any of these comics, but they certainly sound a trillion times more interesting and more sympathetic to their audience than anything that was done with the character when I was a kid. And it’s this version of Captain Marvel – the one who flies jets for the Air Force and doesn’t wear a black bondage costume – who’s been incorporated into the Marvel movies, played by Brie Larson, and we all found it hugely entertaining.

The movie is set thirteen years before Iron Man, in the days of dial-up connections and Blockbuster Video, and it dots a bunch of Is and crosses a bunch of Ts you didn’t think needed noting. It gives us the early career of Ronan the Accuser and one of Clark Gregg’s first assignments as Agent Coulson. It answers all sorts of questions about Nick Fury and who he’s been willing to trust. They’ve got this digital de-aging business down to such an art that it looks like Samuel L. Jackson made this film immediately after he made Pulp Fiction in 1994.

Most importantly, though, this gives us a great character, one who has some confusion, but a great deal of confidence and incredible power. Like T’Challa and the cast from Wakanda, she’s here to inspire a wider and a more diverse audience than the narrowly-focused world of comics-based stuff typically does. I’m really looking forward to seeing her interact with the other heroes in next month’s Avengers film, and as for our favorite seven year-old critic, we saw the movie and had lunch and went by Payless to get some new shoes as the chain enters its dying days, and he picked himself out a pair of red sneakers with Carol’s logo on them.

Photo credit: LAist

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Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

A few months ago, I amused myself by “wondering” in print here whether we would be able to get caught up with these movies before the release of Captain Marvel in a few days. This was never really in doubt, but my plan to blog about each of the last several was stymied because I just didn’t have much of anything to say about most of them. The kid has adored all the mayhem, of course, and he’s been rewatching them whenever he has some free time.

Like most seven year-olds, he’s criminally impatient, and by the time we reached the cliffhanger ending to the surprising and silly Ant-Man and the Wasp, he’d had the time of his life – again – and now he’s hopping with a mix of anxiety and frustration that he must wait eight whole weeks to see what will happen to Hank, Janet, and Hope, and whether Scott will be trapped in the Quantum Realm forever. You know, like the rest of us.

I found Avengers: Infinity War horribly unsatisfying the second time around. The bleak climax is no point to end on; the movie is badly, badly lacking a rising, thunderous cliffhanger to lead us into the next adventure. I left the theater last year in a sour mood because of the missed opportunity, and seeing Ant-Man and the Wasp six or seven weeks later lifted my spirit tremendously. It’s a fun and inventive movie, full of surprises. The tone’s just right. It’s lighthearted and takes serious situations seriously, while finding goofy and unexpected ways around the obstacles. And that car chase in San Francisco is a real beauty.

I read that Michael Douglas was advocating for an eighties-set movie starring himself and Michelle Pfeiffer as the original Ant-Man and the Wasp. Marvel’s been understandably cagey about their plans beyond this summer, but as much as I enjoy Paul Rudd and Evangeline Lilly together, I can totally get behind that. Fingers crossed for 2020!

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Black Panther (2018)

I was pleased to see that last year’s Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture. I have no idea whether it is – I average about five a year, basically – but it is extremely entertaining, and unlike several of the Marvel movies, it holds up completely and totally the second time around. I think there’s only one genuine flaw in the script, and that’s the bit where T’Challa swears to W’Kabi that he will either kill or bring back their enemy Klaue. A lead character says something like that, he might as well just keep talking. “And I will fail in this, driving a wedge between us that will take the climax of the movie to resolve.”

I’ve got another complaint: we don’t see nearly enough of Wakanda, and that’s a credit to director Ryan Coogler and a team of amazing production designers who make the city look like the most amazing place on the planet. There’s a shot that lasts about one second of a street vendor grilling some meat. I want to taste it. Can you imagine Anthony Bourdain doing a Parts Unknown about Wakanda? Wouldn’t you want to live in this world?

Michael B. Jordan plays an amazing villain with frightening and very real motivations, and his great flaw is that he can only see Wakanda as a source of weapons and violence. He doesn’t pause to see how beautiful the land and its people are, and how remarkable their technology is. His character’s father once told him that the sunsets in Wakanda are the greatest in the world, and he doesn’t remember until his dying minute.

I think Black Panther is just a great film, full of backstory and love and it feels so real in every scene. I certainly think this is among the most entertaining of the Marvel movies, thanks in large part to the excellent cast and the terrific sense of design and wild tech. Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o are wonderful as former lovers brought back together by duty. Letitia Wright is so fun as the scene-stealing genius Shuri, and if you don’t finish this movie wishing for a spinoff or a miniseries where Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya argue about whose turn it is to walk the rhinoceros, I dunno what to tell you.

I haven’t read very many Black Panther comics. I mainly saw him in the pages of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and the villain was invariably M’Baku, and thank heaven they reworked him for the movie. The comic Man-Ape was a clown, an embarrassment, and M’Baku and his separatist tribe are anything but. I like Winston Duke’s character a lot. In fact, the sooner they can get this sequel into production, the happier I’ll be. There won’t be room for Forest Whitaker or Michael B. Jordan’s characters outside of flashbacks, but it doesn’t even have to be an action-adventure superhero epic. Just give me weird tech stuff, the Dora Milaje hammering their spears into the ground, and Chadwick Boseman’s fabulous performance as a flawed king moving past his father’s mistakes. We’ll be back in Wakanda in seven days for the next Marvel movie, but they didn’t spend enough time there, and the body count is heartbreaking. I want two hours in this place.

Oh, and third quibble: and if we could have a little less of Atlanta pretending to be London next time, and the High Museum of Art pretending to be the Museum of Great Britain, that’d be great.

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

When I was a kid, there were a few elements of the Spider-Man world that aggravated me, in that little kid way, so much that I didn’t often buy Spider-Man’s comics. There was Aunt May, who somehow convinced herself that Peter was a sickly boy and was always in danger of getting the flu or something, and there was Flash Thompson, who seemed too stupid to be a believable irritant.

Part of me, today, thinks most of the comics had moved past them by the late seventies, when I might have been looking at the spinner rack in the drugstore for books to buy for 35 or 40 cents, but there were also so many Ditko and Romita reprints floating around that I never knew what I’d end up buying when I bought a Marvel comic. I was kind of a dumb kid in that regard. Well, in many regards. But it took me until middle school to realise that Batman and Batman’s Detective Comics were two separate books. Marvel was even more confusing to me at age eight.

And then there was the Vulture. Spider-Man seemed to have a rogues gallery full of the most pathetic menaces, and the Vulture was the dopiest of them all: an old guy with wings. In 1963, I understand now, Marvel didn’t have very many characters who could fly. But their universe grew, and this bozo, who should have been left behind as a one-off, somehow stuck around, pretending to be a threat.

So one of the reasons I enjoy Spider-Man: Homecoming so much, apart from it having such a beautifully crafted script that fits in so neatly to the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe and being so well cast, is that it effortlessly redeems all three of these characters. Flash Thompson is a jerk, but a smart guy who all Peter’s friends and classmates enjoy. The Vulture has motivation and alien technology to make him dangerous. And Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is the perfect mom – or aunt – for the modern age. Her worry that Peter might have been on the Staten Island Ferry, when we have no reason to think that Peter has ever ventured anywhere outside Queens before he met Tony Stark, is totally believable and true. Why didn’t Peter check himself in as safe on Facebook? Doesn’t he know May would be worried sick?

The whole film is full of delightful punctuations that make the experience a complete joy the second time around. I loved Donald Glover’s character advising Spider-Man that he really needs to get better with interrogations. I loved Michael Keaton’s face as he figures out who’s in his back seat. I loved Zendaya just being a harmless pest for no good reason. I loved Bokeem Woodbine – who was one of the best elements of the marvelous second season of Fargo – slowly figuring out his new weapons. I didn’t mind the product placement from Lego about another Disney property (corporate synergy!!). And it has the best post-credits scene of any Marvel movie. It’s a delightful, joyful movie, and one of the best in the series.

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Doctor Strange (2016)

Another week, another Marvel movie, and I am really running out of things to say about them. This one stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and I really do need to see him in a role other than an arrogant, insufferable genius one of these days, with Mads Mikkelsen as the bad guy. The visuals are some of the most creative and imaginative in any of these films, and I liked the realization of the Dark Dimension, which is filled with the same spheres-with-nodes shapes that were found in the original comics, where Steve Ditko first created the strange, otherworldly realm of Dormammu and the Mindless Ones.

In fact, let’s pause a moment and not take the usual route of these silly posts, because I’d rather talk a little about Ditko, who died earlier this year at the age of 90. We lost Dr. Strange’s other co-creator, Stan Lee, as well, but everybody knows about him. Steve Ditko was one of those artists that I didn’t “get” as a kid. To my young eyes, his work seemed too simplistic and cartoony, and so I avoided many of the books he worked on in the late seventies, like Marvel’s Machine Man. Later, I fell in love with DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and grumbled about the occasional fill-ins that Ditko provided during a long period where the book was looking for a cohesive writer-artist team.

But before these, there was a house ad that ran in DC’s books in the summer of 1978 that featured an outlandish character in a multi-colored suit and tie. I was thrilled by the look of that character and couldn’t wait to meet him. It took decades.

As I got older, I finally began to understand the thrill of Ditko’s artwork and his creativity. He worked best with a writer to give his plots a more solid script. Left on his own – he self-published dozens of titles – his prose could turn into solid walls of text, but with Stan Lee or Michael Fleisher or Denny O’Neil or Steve Skeates to ground him (comparatively, mind you, as comics from the 60s and 70s sure did make kids have to read a lot), he came up with some downright excellent comics, some of the very best that either of the “Big Two” publishers released in those decades.

Most of these books only lasted for a few years at most. Some of them only had a couple of issues or a very sporadic publication history in the companies’ anthology titles. Nevertheless, if you enjoy superhero fiction, you could do a lot worse than to track down Ditko’s work on both Doctor Strange and Spider-Man for Marvel, along with the Creeper, Hawk and Dove, Shade the Changing Man, and one of the more interesting versions of Starman for DC. Most of it’s available in nice hardback editions. He also worked for Charlton in the late 1960s, writing and drawing adventures of Blue Beetle, Killjoy, the Question, and Captain Atom, though I understand much of this material is currently out of print.

I had one issue of Shade the Changing Man as a kid and didn’t understand a word of it. It seemed to be set in the DC superhero universe, kind of, but it was a stand-alone science fiction serial that it took me until adulthood to figure out and appreciate. It’s about the weird culture of the planet Meta and a wrongly convicted criminal who is running amok on Earth with a stolen hallucination-inducing gadget called an M-Vest. That’s where the outlandish character I mentioned above was meant to appear. The Odd Man was intended to be the star of an every-other-month eight-page backup strip from Shade # 9 forward, but that comic was never published. DC cancelled almost half their line in 1978, and the completed Odd Man strip was dumped into an issue of Detective Comics months later. Took me years to even learn it existed. It was worth the wait.

Ditko never gave interviews, never attended cons, was probably not photographed by anybody in the last fifty years of his life, and was utterly disinterested in the money he could have made from toys and movies based on his characters. He lived to draw and let his work speak for itself. He was an incredible talent, and while time has dated the scripts and caption boxes that surround his art, nobody drew like him. If you enjoy Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances as his characters, why not treat yourself to the original stories sometime?

(Click the images to visit Marvel and DC’s sites and look around at reprints, but better yet, visit a local comic shop and ask the staff to sell you some Ditko! If the hardcovers cost more than you’d like, Marvel has collected all of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Dr. Strange adventures in their low-priced black-and-white Essentials line. Stop by a funnybook store and tell ’em that yer pals at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time sent you. They’ll be sure to say “Who?!”)

Six movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Captain America: Civil War (2016)

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, I had this silly idea to tag actors and continue tagging them into every appearance they make in anything we watch. Then we get to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which would have something like two dozen tags if I named everybody. So never mind.

A couple of months before the movie was released, I got a little petulantly annoyed with the Marvel PR team for revealing that Tom Holland would make his debut as Spider-Man in it. I still think that would have been the greatest wha-huh?! in the movies to have the audience slowly realize that Tony Stark was visiting Peter Parker and his Aunt May, but I forgave them immediately when Scott Lang debuted his Giant-Man shtick. That’s probably been the most agreeable surprise any of these movies have hit me with.

Our kid still tunes out a little when people are talking – unless they’re like Holland’s Spider-Man and they just flat out steal the middle of the movie with their constant banter – but I think we helped him focus a little more this time. When Cap, Falcon, and Sharon Carter are figuring out that they’ve been set up, it’s a truly great little moment. I do love the way realization slowly makes its way across Emily VanCamp’s face. That’s terrific acting.

The other thing I really love is the introduction of Black Panther’s universe, including the very low-key first appearance of Florence Kasumba as Ayo. She’s a minor character among the people of Wakanda, and isn’t even named in this movie, but her instruction to Black Widow to move is just about my favorite threat in a movie full of people giving each other strong warnings. The Panther had always been one of those characters that other people enjoyed more than me until Chadwick Boseman took the part. In Boseman’s hands, he is one of my favorite Marvel heroes.

But in the end, the movie is about the awful end to Tony and Steve’s friendship, their truce shattered when we learn that Bucky had, twenty-five years earlier, murdered Tony’s parents while under Hydra’s control. The fight at the airport is wonderful and hilarious, but the climax, with Tony, Steve, and Bucky beating each other with more blood and pain and bruises than these movies typically give us, is horrible and heartbreaking. It’s a terrific end to a really excellent movie, but it kind of demands that the next few stories are a little different and more lighthearted…

Seven movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Ant-Man (2015)

For anybody following this tag, we didn’t skip a movie. We watched Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier this month, but I’m finding it much, much harder to find anything new to say about the Marvel movies, and that one’s particularly uninspiring. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad film; in fact it’s perfectly entertaining for what it set out to do.

Ant-Man, on the other hand, is a pure pleasure from start to finish. It’s still a pain in the neck coming up with anything new to say about it, so I’ll turn to our favorite seven year-old critic and his own observations.

Naturally, he liked the fights the best, or at least he claims he does. When we were watching the movie, the thing that made him exclaim and start babbling over the dialogue was seeing Michael Peña and “the gang” reenter the story. Luis might be his favorite supporting character from any of these dozen movies. And he loved seeing Evangeline Lilly’s character of Hope Van Dyne train our hero and give him a basement full of bruises.

Of course, since the fights include helicopters, lasers, explosions, and Thomas the Tank Engine, that’s all he wanted to talk about afterward. I liked those as well, but I really liked Lilly’s chemistry with Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd, and loved the casual start-of-the-film revelation – with guest cameos by Hayley Atwell and John Slattery – that the original Ant-Man was an active superhero agent for SHIELD in the 1980s. There’s probably a Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline somewhere that I’d enjoy reading. I should probably track that down.

Eight movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

I’ve mentioned how our son tends to quietly babble and talk during movies, despite me being one of those boring old fuddy-duddies who wishes people would shush. I’ve become quite a bit less of a stick in the mud, I think, because our son has so much more fun watching movies than pretty much anybody else. So when the Nova Corps and the Ravagers have a ridiculously gorgeous mid-air shootout with all the gunships of Ronan the Accuser, who could grouse when the kid bellowed “THIS IS EPIC!!” Or a little while later, when Star-Lord starts his dance-off with Ronan and our kid shouted “What the– what the what?” Who could complain?

Guardians of the Galaxy may not be my pick for the best Marvel movie, but it’s certainly one of the most fun. Our son immediately and unsurprisingly hailed this one as his favorite. He liked Rocket best, of course, but he liked all of the heroic characters and he laughed all the way through the film.

As I’m a little short on time now, I’ll just breeze through and note that Guardians of the Galaxy, the tenth Marvel Universe film, was directed by James Gunn and introduced a mob of new characters and locations. It stars the incredibly likable Chris Pratt as the barely likable Star-Lord, Zoe Saldana as the assassin Gamora, and Dave Bautista as the hyper-literal Drax the Destroyer. They’re joined by former Doctor Who companion Karen Gillan as the cyborg Nebula, Glenn Close as an alien politician, the great character actor and comedian John C. Reilly as an overworked space cop, and the voices of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the show-stealing Rocket and Groot. It’s huge fun, the music is mostly great, and that dance-off moment is fabulous.

Quibble: Seth Green does the voice of Howard the Duck in a post-credit moment. Howard’s creator, the great Steve Gerber, always said that Howard should sound like Burgess Meredith. That said, now that Wally Sidney owns Howard, is it absolutely necessary for him to continue wearing trousers?

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