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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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Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

The elevator scene.

There is nowhere in the Marvel Universe – movies or comic books – that I’d rather be less than in this elevator. I’d rather be sat next to the Kidney Lady on a city bus in Cleveland, 1977, than in this elevator.

Years ago, a fellow I knew got up after the second song at a Roxy Music concert. He said after watching Phil Manzanera play the end of “Ladytron,” he got his money’s worth. That’s how I feel about this movie. It doesn’t matter how many things blow up or how many buildings get knocked down after this. It’s Cap and those dozen men in that glass box a third of the way through the film. Boy freaking howdy, did I ever get my money’s worth.

As for the rest, I think it’s the best Marvel movie by a mile. Kind of bittersweet to watch it the weekend after Chris Evans announced he was stepping down as Cap, because Captain America is my favorite Marvel superhero and I am so pleased and thrilled with the job Evans did bringing him to life.

Joining Evans this time out, there’s Scarlett Johansson and Samuel L. Jackson as usual. Sebastian Stan returns as Bucky, now the brainwashed Winter Soldier, and Anthony Mackie debuts as Cap’s best friend and partner Sam Wilson, the Falcon. Also returning are Hayley Atwell as the now ninety-odd year-old Peggy Carter, and Toby Jones as Arnim Zola.

Before we got started, I showed our son what Zola looked like in Jack Kirby’s comics. Marvel thoughtfully collected Kirby’s mid-seventies run of Captain America and the Falcon across three volumes, and they are some crazy, wild, freaked-out comics. You should definitely visit your neighborhood comic shop and buy those. Turning Zola into a supercomputer that has a nice wink to old readers with his camera above his face-monitor left me in heaven when I first saw this.

And of course, there’s Robert Redford. You can imagine the wheels turning in the directors’ heads as they started putting this story together and realized that Redford, more than arguably any other possible choice, was the name they needed for this part. Alexander Pierce is a terrific villain.

It all adds up to my favorite Marvel movie. Not much else to add, other than the kid loved it too, of course. It demands repeat viewings more than any of the others, and if you don’t finish this movie without wanting to watch Redford in Three Days of the Condor, something must be wrong with you. Not really one for our kid quite yet, of course, but one day.

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Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Star Wars is rarely far from my mind these days, in part because I have a seven year-old son who yammers about it constantly, and in part because people who call themselves fans can’t go nine straight days without doing something so silly or stupid that most people wish they’d never heard of Star Wars.

For posterity, the most recent attack on common sense has been a coterie of dingbats who scheme to remake The Last Jedi to some different set of specifications. A couple of weeks ago, it was the news that actress Kelly Marie Tran had deleted her Instagram posts after concentrated harassment from bigots and misogynists.

But it’s been that way for years, hasn’t it? At some point around the time that Revenge of the Sith was released, one of the Star Wars novelists rang up Lucasfilm to get a detail for one of her books. As I recall, she wanted to know how many clone troopers were involved in the siege of such-n-such. She was told that it was a million, and fourteen readers rioted because that was too few soldiers. The author was villified; people made little computer animations depicting her as a lizard-alien peddling false statistics.

And all I always think is, why do these movies make people so hateful? I don’t get it. Sometimes they’re stupid, and sometimes the acting is wretched, but if you get disappointed with a movie, as is pretty easy to do with the prequels, just tune it out and watch something different.

I tried working out a Star Wars timeline for my son to follow it. I figure it as about 67 years between The Phantom Menace and The Last Jedi. For him, it’s all one story, all to be explored as one, and he was delighted with it. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have any preconceived notions and he hasn’t formed a bigoted opinion about what skin color the heroes are meant to have. And I kind of enjoyed working it out, whether or not my sums are right.

It’s a fun little universe to think about and play with. It’s inspired at least one really entertaining video game (Shadows of the Empire for the N64) and one thunderously wonderful comic (Death, Lies, and Treachery by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy), plus sixty gajillion cartoons and books I haven’t seen. It’s Star Wars and it’s meant to be fun. Maybe if it stops being fun, its “fans” should go watch something else.

Revenge of the Sith, meanwhile, has the terrific scene where R2-D2 sets a couple of robots on fire. Our son was thrilled to meet General Grievous, and hated seeing Anikin turn to the Dark Side, and didn’t quite understand why there was “all that metal” on the lava planet. He loved it and wants to see the next one. I hope he never does anything so idiotic as harass an actress on Instagram.

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The Avengers (2012)

More evidence, as if any were needed, that a good movie is elevated when you watch it with an appreciative kid. I like The Avengers just fine – I keep telling our son that these are the other, lesser Avengers, but I don’t think he’s buying it – but I’m pretty sure he’s thinking this is the finest achievement in motion picture history. I thought he was going to explode when Thor and Iron Man have their fight.

Every joke that involves the Hulk in the final fight had our son roaring. Some others bombed with him because he didn’t understand them, which just means he’s going to appreciate the movie more and more as he gets older. On that note, he got a little impatient after the attack on the Helicarrier, and when Black Widow and Hawkeye have their heart-to-heart, he tuned out, as you’d expect a kid to. I really must remember to watch this again with him sometime and see whether he understands the character stuff better, particularly all the interesting manipulation going on as both Nick Fury and Loki place bets on how our heroes will react to various bits of challenging information.

That’s about all I have to say, but for posterity, The Avengers is the sixth Marvel Universe movie, it’s directed and co-written by Joss Whedon, and it features the debut of Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Everybody else is all present and correct, and my favorite bit is when Captain America shows up in Stuttgart to save that old man’s life and you just know that Loki’s about to get a knuckle sandwich. Our son was taken by just about everything else, and was dazed by that long final fight.

Finally, he was totally charmed by the second credit scene in the little deli and its quiet awkwardness. Of course, now that I have said that, I’m a little peckish. I wonder whether I can persuade my family to go to Ankar’s and get some shawarma for supper tonight. It may not be “best in New York City” good, though.

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Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

You know, I like Captain America’s first movie, but I don’t love it. It’s tough to completely embrace because there’s so much more to this story that time doesn’t allow us to see, but I want to so much. Everything works just fine until we meet the Howling Commandos. Then it’s into a montage of action scenes because this movie’s already gone for about eighty minutes and we still have several weeks of sneak attacks and missions behind enemy lines between where we are and the big climax.

It’s so unfair. Why aren’t there ten Howling Commandos movies here? I’ll settle for a ten episode TV series. Six. Two TV movies and a package of deleted scenes? They cast all these perfect actors as Cap’s team! I actually remember Dum Dum Dugan best from my own childhood as the starring part in Marvel’s silly Godzilla comic book, which I adored even despite the artwork that I didn’t like, and there is an actor named Neal McDonough who looks like the character came right off the page. There’s not nearly enough with these guys.

So what else? Joe Johnston directed this, and he also made the wonderful Rocketeer and Jumanji – and that idiotic Wolfman movie with Anthony Hopkins, but nobody’s perfect – and it’s just a tremendously fun period piece. Captain America vaulted over every other Marvel superhero to become my favorite once it finally clicked and I fell in love with Jack Kirby’s comics with the character. (Weirdly, I didn’t like Kirby at all when I was little.) Chris Evans just cemented the deal for me. He’s just perfect in the part. I really appreciate how he’s made this character resonate. Even on Twitter, the actor embodies everything that Captain America stands for.

Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly steals every scene he’s in, and Hayley Atwell is terrific fun as Agent Peggy Carter – about whom, much more later this summer – and it’s got a pair of great villains in Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones. I like the concept of the Red Skull, a villain so hateful and horrible that even all the other Marvel supervillains hate him. I don’t like how there’s a get-out clause for him in this movie, that possibly the Tesseract/Cosmic Cube/Space Stone teleported him into the future so he might one day reappear to fight again. I hope not. I’m happier with him being a period villain only!

This also has the first appearance of Sebastian Stan’s character Bucky, who’ll end up turning the Marvel Universe upside down a few films later. Of course, all my childhood, Bucky was dead – and, because kid sidekicks were the worst thing in the universe when you’re thirteen or so, we were glad of it – so I was pretty surprised to learn, a couple of years before this movie, that they’d brought Bucky back as the Winter Soldier. Unpleasantly surprised, I should say. I was playing a miniatures game, Heroclix, at the time, when one of the other players at the shop explained this new-to-me character once he had a piece and thought that was the most idiotic thing I’d ever heard. I did win an important tournament for that expansion and snagged a super-rare prize with him, but grudgingly. So all credit to Sebastian Stan for taking a character I could not possibly care less about and making him so darn watchable. But some of that comes later, I guess.

Well, if you think I’m nitpicky about the way I write about these movies, you should see our son. He tells us that this is his favorite of the first five, but it needed one more explosion. The scene where Cap rescues the 400 soldiers from Hydra’s prison camp was his favorite part of the film, which I thought was interesting because it’s almost always the very end of the movie that thrills him most. But then again, this climax has Cap and Peggy being mushy over the radio to each other. He probably didn’t want to admit to any tears.

But all the action scenes had him hopping. He adored this movie and didn’t need too many explanations, although we did pause it to clarify what Hydra was up to after the Red Skull kills the three Nazi officials who visit his bunker to sneer at him, and also to explain Cap’s turn as an onstage propaganda hero to sell war bonds. Not like today’s children have many opportunities to learn what war bonds are!

And that’s another thing: they should have actually made one of those cheesy black and white shorts that Cap was making in the last half of 1942. That would have been so fun. So far my Marvel wishlist is a Sif and the Warriors Three feature, a ten-week Howling Commandos TV series, and a twelve-minute Captain America Punches Der Fuhrer’s Face short, like they’d run after the newsreel and the cartoon before the movie. Why does ABC keep making more Agents of SHIELD instead of what’s really important here?

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Attack of the Clones (2002)

My wife was saying that Attack of the Clones is the worst of all these movies. I said that’s nonsense. This one has Christopher Lee in it. That automatically makes it a hundred times better than The Phantom Menace. And it is.

It’s still not a very good movie, because it also has all of this nonsense in it:

Attack of the Clones was released in 2002, which was not a very good year for me. 1992 and 2012 were also pretty downright terrible, now that I think about it. I saw this film when it was released, didn’t enjoy it very much, and didn’t think about it much after that. Over the last sixteen years, I forgot pretty much everything about it, beyond it having Christopher Lee, an action scene in a factory, and Samuel L. Jackson getting a purple lightsaber.

Oh yes, and it also has just about the worst romance ever committed to camera, which not even a hundred and sixteen years could erase. Natalie Portman might be a good actress, and I’ve never seen Hayden Christensen outside these two movies so I don’t have a particularly strong opinion of him, but I can’t think of anybody who could make this idiocy shine when the lovestruck male has to deliver lines like “You are in my very soul, tormenting me.”

Every note of their courtship is tonally terrible. This is supposed to be the love that dooms Anikin into a life of pure evil and devotion to the Dark Side, so it’s not a love anybody’s supposed to cheer, but shouldn’t it have a feeling of, I dunno, seduction? Passion that’s forbidden because it’s morally wrong, and not just violating some rules of Coruscant senate protocol and an order of karate monks? Why does it play like flowering, sweet tenderness in a lush paradise between a practical woman and her teenage stalker? If this were the hero getting the girl to love him, it would be one kind of wretched. But this is the villain’s fall. Shouldn’t it have played out, you know, villainously?

Here’s the thing: nothing about The Phantom Menace worked, but if you hacked out all of Portman and Christensen making goo-goo eyes at each other, there’s a pretty good movie in here. I think that it’s by miles the most colorful Star Wars movie. It still looks lived-in, but it also looks like a world where people actually want to live. Coruscant actually looks like a pretty swell place to visit this time. The hidden rain planet of Kamino was especially interesting to me this morning, in part because I genuinely and sincerely forgot that subplot entirely. It’s still flawed, but all the other actors are good and the action scenes entertaining.

Our son was in heaven again. He loved meeting Jango Fett, and the action scenes were as wild as he’s ever seen. The mayhem on the conveyor belts in the factory had him so overstimulated that he was off the sofa and halfway up the staircase. R2-D2 and C-3PO were reliably ridiculous, and the movie had plenty of shocks and surprises.

He has received sets of Micro Machines and Lego Star Wars from relatives for Christmas and his birthday. He absolutely loves it when he spots a starfighter that he’s been using in bedroom floor battles for weeks.

Because the toys are part of the fabric of his life, I decided to rearrange the movie schedule so he can see them all and get them absorbed and, of course, rewatch them again and again sooner than I originally planned. So we’ll look at Sith next month instead of at the end of the summer, and probably watch the next three before the end of the year. He was pretty happy about that, and has been pestering his mom to come join him in the floor with Rose, Finn, BB-8, and some Lego contraption as soon as she’s free.

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The Phantom Menace (1999)

You said it, Jar Jar.


Okay, so we do have a few subscribers who might actually want more than five words about this berry berry bad movie, and it’s possible that one day our son might want to revisit this blog and see what we watched together. For posterity’s sake, then, this was one of the longest chores I’ve sat through. Somehow, though, when I was younger and more prone to want to see big movies on the big screen, I paid for this turkey three damn times.

One of those times was around early June, 1999. It was my oldest son’s first movie in a theater. He lasted thirty minutes, got bored, and walked to the exit. Admittedly he was really young – too young for a theater trip – but I’d been persuaded that he might enjoy the bragging rights to saying that a Star Wars movie was his first movie in a theater. Eh, it was only twenty bucks or so.

This kid, however, didn’t walk out, although the agonizing talk of trade negotiations, senate procedure, and votes of no confidence certainly left him almost as bored as the grown-ups. He really enjoyed the pod race, and the appearance of favorite characters from the original movie, and the big climactic space battle. The best scene of all was when Anakin fired “those two bullets to start everything blowing up.”

It is – I’m sure it must be – the thrill of something brand new, but our favorite six year-old critic says that enjoyed this film more than the other three, and he liked Jar Jar Binks a whole lot. But that’s always been the case. Kids have always liked Jar Jar, because he’s a character for children. (And incidentally, I was quite taken with actor Ahmed Best’s defense of his performance for Entertainment Weekly. It’s worth a read.)

And these are, as much as some snarling “adults” wish for them to be otherwise, movies for the whole family.

Binks is the reason for the subtitle in the picture up top. Our son enjoyed Binks, but he complained that he couldn’t understand what he was saying. So we watched the movie with subtitles, and I’m very pleased that he’s reading so well that it helped him follow it.

As for me, no, but it’s nice to look at. The costumes and landscapes are interesting. None of the actors do a particularly standout job, though I remember enjoying Ewan McGregor much more in the next two movies. Oliver Ford Davies, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Liam Neeson, Ray Park, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp, and BRIAN BLESSED have all done better work in other films. At least I think Neeson has. Like Prentis Hancock, he’s one of those actors I just never enjoy. I guess in retrospect it’s kind of amusing that they cast Stamp, of all people, as a man without a backbone. That’s all I have. It’s a berry berry bad movie.

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Iron Man 2 (2010)

So the third Marvel Universe movie… it’s kind of underwhelming, isn’t it? I think I’d honestly have preferred a six episode TV series with Tony Stark wheeling and dealing and saving his own life without any superhero stuff in it. The superhero stuff here just isn’t all that interesting. Mickey Rourke is the villain this time, an odd gestalt of two comic book characters, Whiplash and the Crimson Dynamo. It’s a very odd performance, even for Rourke, who has a reputation for being a little eccentric. The screen certainly doesn’t come to life when he’s on it.

When Tony’s being rude to the Senate Committee, on the other hand, the movie’s absolutely full of life. When he and Pepper Potts keep talking at the same time, it’s almost magical. I absolutely love watching Robert Downey Jr. and Gwenyth Paltrow together. They have such great chemistry. And when Black Widow does her thing and takes out eight or nine guards while Happy works very hard to pummel one, that’s pretty wonderful, too. But Tony and James Rhodes, now played by Don Cheadle, have the big climax together against a small army of armored drone robots, and it’s one of the most dull conclusions to any of these movies. There’s no sense of awe this time out, just punctuations to the actors having a better movie in their civilian guises.

I admit that this post is pretty underwhelming, too. This just isn’t a very inspiring movie to me, really. All of the plot complications were completely over our son’s head, in part because he was too excited to pay attention. This is a big day for him. We got up a little early to watch this, and then take an hour for him to exercise and spend some energy while I hammer this out, and we’ll be on our way to see Black Panther in about thirty minutes. Two Marvel movies in one day? He’s died and gone to heaven or something. He just interrupted playing the Hulk smashing zombies to interrupt me with a hug.

So he’s received a quick recap of the apparently relevant events in Captain America: Civil War, but I’m not sure he’ll need it. He just wants to see costumed people ripping cars in half. The whys and wherefores aren’t all that important at age six.

Honestly, in this movie, I’m kind of happier watching the costumed people argue in doughnut shops.

There’s this completely strange subplot to the movie where Tony is dying because the radiation from his arc reactor eats through the palladium core. But Nick Fury gives him a hint that there may be other elements, which works out because Tony’s father built a giant clue about a new element into the… wait for it… grounds plan of the 1974 Stark Expo park. So he synthesizes this new element with a makeshift supercollider and then gets all better. I realize that superhero origin stories are often tortuous, but that’s pretty silly.

Now the Hulk has chainsaws and saws for ultimate power. He’s honestly coming up with something more interesting than what we just watched. I wonder whether Downey and Paltrow are available?

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