Posts Tagged ‘Superheroes’

Director: Patty Jenkins

Starring: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, David Thewlis, Connie Nielsen, Elena Anaya

For as long as we can remember, superhero films have featured protagonists whose motivations consist primarily of a combination of two things: 1) a natural enemy to defeat and 2) someone whose death they feel compelled to avenge. #2 comes around a little less often than #1, but the fact remains that the hero is focused on defeating the villain. #1 is no different in the case of Wonder Woman, as she was born and bred for this purpose. But there is much that is different about her. Apart from Marvel’s Thor, Wonder Woman is unique in that she is the offspring of a god. Having the powers of an immortal god could have easily led to her imposing her will on all of humanity. But that’s not Wonder Woman’s style. She is not the sort who would destroy entire cities to end a threat, or perform a memory wipe on someone just to remove the burden of having to shield them 24/7. What truly helps Wonder Woman to stand out among the crowd is her unwavering desire to save people.

In 2017 Paris, Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) stares at an old photograph of herself and others from a century ago, recovered for her by newfound friend, Bruce Wayne, a.k.a. Batman. Her memories of a long ago era take her back first to her youth on the island of Themyscira, where she was one among the many of Amazonian warrior women who lived there. The island is obscured from the rest of the world for their (and, more specifically, Diana’s) own protection. Despite the objections of Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), Diana begins training for a battle yet to come. That battle, against Ares, the god of war, is one that Zeus (Ares’s father) believed was inevitable, and thus he created Diana through Hippolyta. In Hippolyta’s sister, General Antiope (Robin Wright), the greatest of all warriors on Themyscira, Diana could find no better teacher. Princess Buttercup is a general, now. How cool is that?!

Trouble arrives when a German plane piloted by American spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes into the water just off the coast of Themyscira. Diana saves Steve, but he was followed, and although the ensuing German assault is soundly defeated, Antiope is killed. The Lasso of Truth forces Steve to reveal the nature of his mission: the theft of a notebook from the laboratory of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya), who is developing mustard gas for the Germans, which indicates the plans to start a higher form of warfare. The Amazonians, up to now, had no idea that World War I was going on around them. Diana believes that this is a sign of Ares’ return, that he is posing as German General Erich Ludendorff (Danny Huston), and that it is her duty to find and defeat him.

Having no experience with the outside world, Diana is unaccustomed to a society where women have no say in any matters of importance. As such, there are many awkward moments, both in trying to assert herself and in trying to look the part of a woman living in the 1910s. Perhaps the best example of this is when Diana attempts to walk out onto the streets of London whilst carrying both her sword and shield. Not exactly the type of thing that would help her to “blend in”! At the War Council, Steve barges in and delivers the notebook, but is barred from taking any further action. An armistice with Germany is in the works, and they don’t want anything mucking it up. Steve is a soldier, and as such is willing to (reluctantly) accept orders once they are given, but Diana (whom Steve has introduced as Diana Prince) sees only foolishness in failing to act. One member of the council, Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis) agrees to help them covertly.

After putting a team together, Steve and Diana head for Belgium. At the Western Front, the team finds what appears to them to be an impasse. In what has to go down as the movie’s greatest scene… perhaps one of the greatest scenes of ANY superhero film… Diana climbs from the trenches and walks through No man’s land, using her bracelets and her shield to deflect all incoming enemy fire. This moment is as breathtaking as it is inspirational. A village is liberated, and the photograph from the film’s opening scene is taken. Afterwards, Steve and Diana share a moment of intimacy. Alas, though the battle may be won, the war is far from over.

Diana tracks down and attempts to kill Ludendorff, but Steve stops her, believing that their mission to stop the gas attack would be compromised. Ludendorff subsequently orders a test of the gas on the very town which Diana and Steve just rescued. Distraught by the senseless loss of life and beginning to lose her faith in humanity, Diana lashes out at Steve and continues her pursuit of Ludendorff. Finding him once again, Diana does not fail in her mission to kill Ludendorff, yet she is puzzled. If Ares is now dead, why then does the war continue? That question is answered quickly. Out of nowhere, Sir Patrick appears, declaring himself to be Ares.

All along, Diana has assumed that Ares has been controlling the thoughts and actions of the Germans. In an attempt to simultaneously break her spirit and cause his sister to join him, Ares explains to Diana that he hasn’t deprived humanity of its free will, that it is they who choose to be evil. While this is going on, Steve pilots a plane carrying the mustard gas high into the sky where, in an act of self-sacrifice, he can detonate it safely. Despite some cheer-leading from Ares, Diana chooses not to murder a defenseless Doctor Poison, instead reassured and inspired by Steve’s final words to her as well as his final act, both of which were born from love. It is through the power of love… Diana’s love for Steve and for all of humanity… that Diana is able to summon the energy that has always existed within her to ultimately defeat her brother, once and for all.

Wonder Woman was already recognizable as being (easily) the best part of 2016’s Batman v Superman. As the star of her very own movie, the Princess of Themyscira makes 2017’s Wonder Woman one of the very best superhero movies ever made. Apart from the rather timely message of love conquering hate, Wonder Woman also features terrific set design (owing to its World War I setting), a great supporting cast (in which Chris Pine is the standout), and a powerful score by Rupert Gregson-Williams. Not since John Williams’ Superman (1978) and Danny Elfman’s Batman (1989) scores has a superhero been blessed with such appropriate music, particularly the track “Wonder Woman’s Wrath.” Incidentally, when Wonder Woman returns in Fall 2017 for Justice League, Danny Elfman will provide the music.

Finally, there’s Gal Gadot herself. A former Israeli model who owes her first big break in Hollywood (2011’s Fast Five) to actor Vin Diesel, Gadot’s hiring for Wonder Woman was widely criticized. So was Michael Keaton for 1989’s Batman, as well as Heath Ledger for 2008’s The Dark Knight. Unfairly, Gadot’s criticism had more to with her body shape than anything else. Gadot turned out not just to be a good choice, but a perfect choice. Like those before her who’ve entered the superhero genre and succeeded as mightily as Gal Gadot has with Wonder Woman, Gadot’s name will forever be synonymous with her character. For as long as Gadot wields the Lasso of Truth as Diana Prince, I will always be appreciative of what she brings to the table.

Director: David Ayer

Starring: Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, Cara Delevigne

When the character of Harley Quinn first arrived on the scene in 1992’s “Batman: The Animated Series,” I never would have guessed that she would become a part of the comic book lineage as well, nor that she would ever be anything more than a throwaway sidekick/love interest for the Joker whose very presence undermined the more famous supervillain. Since that time, it had always been my belief that the Joker was better off without being tied to Harley Quinn. Now, with the release of Suicide Squad in 2016, I am left to wonder if the opposite can’t also be true.

The events of Batman v. Superman have (at least temporarily) led to a hole in the Earth’s protection against threats it can’t handle alone.  Enter the Suicide Squad: DC Comics’ version of The Dirty Dozen. This ragtag group of misfits and criminals who’ve been jailed by the likes of Batman, the Flash and others are recruited against their will by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis). Waller is tough as nails, takes no crap from anyone, and has as much of a mean streak as any of her new “recruits” do. All except for one: The Enchantress (Cara Delevigne), an ancient witch with god-like powers which has attached itself to the mind and body of Dr. June Moone. Enchantress doesn’t much care for being imprisoned and paraded around by mortals, so she bolts the first chance she gets and sets off on her plan to destroy the human race, with an assist from her brother, Incubus.

Even though it’s a mess of her own creation, Waller expects the Suicide Squad to clean it up for her, adding that she’s had nano-bombs implanted in each of their necks. Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) incorrectly calls her bluff, leading to an attempted escape by team member Slipknot, who is quickly killed as a demonstration. Captain Boomerang and the others acquiesce and follow the lead of Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who unbeknownst to them is the lover of Dr. June Moone. The rest of the Suicide Squad includes Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) and Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

The group’s mission is a simple extraction. Turns out the person in need of removal from the city is Waller herself. In the meantime, the Joker (Jared Leto) has come to free Harley. Having arranged for her implant to be disabled, the Joker steals a helicopter; the very one that was meant for the team’s extraction. Harley boards the helicopter, but falls out when it takes fire from Waller’s men. Deadshot is ordered to kill Harley, but he intentionally misses. The helicopter goes down, leading Harley to assume the Joker is dead.

Citizens and military personnel under the Enchantress’s control kidnap Waller, while Deadshot gets a hold of Waller’s confidential files, revealing the truth of the mission and Flag’s connection to it. Flag relieves the team of their obligation, and they all find the nearest bar. After downing a round or two (or three), they regroup and decide to take on the Enchantress anyway. Deadshot has the biggest motivation to do so, as he has a young and impressionable daughter who was present the night he was captured by Batman, and whom he wants to think highly of him.

The team climbs a long flight of stairs like in the original Ghostbusters, and gear up for the fight against Enchantress and Incubus. Diablo takes on Incubus alone. With the aid of explosive charges, Incubus is defeated, though not without the self-sacrifice of Diablo. Enchantress is not so easily handled, in fact she is nearly invincible. Ultimately, Harley Quinn acts as a distraction, pretending to have interest in joining the Enchantress’s cause. Instead, Harley Quinn cuts out the Enchantress’s heart. Acting as a team, Killer Croc then tosses an explosive into Enchantress’s doomsday weapon, while Deadshot fires the shot that destroys it. Flag then takes the heart and threatens to crush it unless June is brought back. Enchantress defiantly dares him to do it, even though it means her death. Flag is despondent, believing his lover dead, but she arises from the Enchantress’s carcass (yet another Ghostbusters nod).

The group is ready to disperse back into society, when a very much alive Waller emerges, still holding her finger on the kill button connected to the implants in their necks. Relunctantly, each returns to their cells, though not without special requests. Deadshot is allowed supervised visitations with his daughter. Harley Quinn, enjoying her new espresso machine, is broken out of prison by the Joker.

Like Batman v. SupermanSuicide Squad is a deeply flawed superhero film. The flaws begin almost immediately, as the audience is besieged by a soundtrack that can best be described as an amateur mixtape. Nearly the entirety of the first 45 minutes plays out like an elongated series of mini-music videos. Spread out, this wouldn’t be a problem, but there’s no chance for anyone to take a breath. Every character introduction requires another song.

Let’s talk about the characters in this movie. Of the main cast, only a handful has what one would call development. Viola Davis and Will Smith are both reliably good. Joel Kinnaman plays the conflicted hero role well enough. Jay Hernandez’s El Diablo is a decent tragic figure. On the other hand, Jai Courtney, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Adam Beach and Karen Fukuhara are disposable as Captain Boomerang, Killer Croc, Slipknot and Katana.

Hands down, this movie belongs to Margot Robbie and her definitive performance as Harley Quinn. Robbie’s Harley is equal parts sexy, funny, and batshit crazy. More Harley is wanted, and more Harley is what we’ll get in both Gotham City Sirens and a Suicide Squad sequel. What I’m hoping to see as little as possible of in the future is Jared Leto’s Joker. Less psychopathic and more just plain weird, Leto’s performance takes up maybe seven minutes of actual screen time here. More footage was left out of the Theatrical Cut (I assume some is reinserted into the Extended Cut). Despite the insistence of Jared Leto and director David Ayer, I can’t imagine any more of this person masquerading as the Joker doing anything but harm the movie even further.

The plot itself is copied and pasted from other capers, superhero flicks and comedies, with a villain that is far too weak to be an ancient immortal god/witch. Fault in the Enchantress’s threat level may lie simply in the casting of supermodel-turned-actress Cara Delevigne. A flaw like this might have been overlooked had the Suicide Squad itself not been short on character development. Ultimately, Suicide Squad represents a step up from the mostly disastrous superhero films of a generation ago, but stands as below average in the same genre of today.

Director: Zack Snyder

Starring: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot

As a comics reader, I’ve always been more of a Marvel fan. The same is true of the movies… for the most part. There have been exceptions to that rule, of course, notably with DC’s adaptations of Alan Moore classics V for Vendetta and Watchmen. The big-screen escapades of DC’s two most popular characters, Batman and Superman, have also piqued my interest on occasion. Of the two, Batman, being a man who has no superpowers to fall back on, is infinitely more relatable than the Last Son of Krypton.  So, of course, when it comes to a showdown between the two, I would always choose the side of the Caped Crusader. Not to mention the fact that I can count seeing Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman at the age of 7 as the event which changed me from a casual viewer to full-blown fan of movies. From 1978 to the present day, each hero’s cinematic ride has experienced the highest of highs, and (extremely) lowest of lows. 2016’s Batman v. Superman falls into neither category.

After a brief opening credits sequence which features what feels like the millionth depiction of the murders of Thomas and Martha Wayne (played by “The Walking Dead” co-stars Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Lauren Cohan), the action moves to the climactic battle sequence from the end of 2013’s Man of Steel, where Superman (Henry Cavill) winds up causing more destruction in Metropolis than he is able to prevent in battling General Zod (Michael Shannon). Only, this time, we witness the battle from the perspective of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck).

One cannot watch this sequence without automatically thinking of 9/11, and that’s what makes this the most effective part of the movie. It also helps to establish a motive for Bruce Wayne/Batman to see Superman not as a guardian of Earth, but as a threat against it. Bruce, who has been at this superhero gig for a while now, is using a much more harshly defined sense of justice these days, which provides Clark Kent/Superman with reason to voice his opinion on the matter via Daily Planet articles.

Unlike the Superman of the 1980s, who somehow was able to convince the leaders of the world to allow him to rid the Earth of nuclear weapons, this version of Superman has a hard time assuring the U.S. government that he has our best interests at heart. He is even compelled to appear before a Senate committee hearing on the subject. Unfortunately, the hearing is interrupted by a suicide bomb, which kills everyone in attendance, including Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). Everyone, that is, except for Superman. As it happens, this event, along with the seeds of doubt pitting Batman and Superman on opposing sides, have all been orchestrated by the unhinged head of LexCorp, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg).

Behind the scenes, Luthor has been very busy, collecting a Kryptonite sample, acquiring both Zod’s corpse and his spaceship, and also investigating the existence of metahumans. Bruce Wayne acquires both the Kryptonite and the info on meta-humans, the former to be used as a deterrent against Superman. The latter reveals to him four individuals with extraordinary gifts: the super-speedy Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the underwater-dwelling Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), the part man, part machine Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), as well as Amazonian Princess and daughter of Zeus, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot). Bruce is already familiar with Diana, having bumped into her at a party at LexCorp. He only needs the one meeting to be able to sense that there is more to her than most men would notice.

Diana is also interested in the meta-human file, though only for a specific photo which she claims belongs to her. Bruce shares the file via e-mail, noting that this grainy black & white image from a century ago is not merely her possession, but is in fact a record of her involvement in the events of World War I. I reserve any further commentary on the matter, as the movie does, for 2017’s Wonder Woman.

The film’s promised fight finally gets underway thanks to Lex’s maneuverings, the final piece of which is the kidnapping of Martha Kent (Diane Lane), which will ensure that Superman fights Batman at Lex’s bidding, lest Martha meet a fiery end. So the two heroes fight, with Batman using Kryptonite as a means to level the playing field. Eventually, Batman gains the upper hand, but is startled by the notion that Superman’s adoptive mother and his own dead mother share the same first name. For most who have seen this movie, this scene is one of the most heavily scrutinized. It’s the jarring transition from beating the hell out of each other to suddenly being best buds which earns that criticism.

So, Batman volunteers to save Martha while Superman goes to confront Luthor. Unable to accept defeat, Luthor unveils his Plan B: the Kryptonian abomination known as Doomsday. It takes the combined efforts of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman to provide adequate defense against the monster, but only Kryptonite can kill it, and the only fragment left was used by Batman to form a spear. It falls to Superman to find and use the spear, but because of his own weakness to the shiny green rock it leaves him just as vulnerable, and thus Superman and Doomsday simultaneously kill one another.

An epilogue, which is mainly a teaser for the forthcoming Justice League movie, shows Batman confronting a deranged Luthor in prison, who warns of the imminent arrival of supervillain Steppenwolf (whose actual name is never mentioned), leaving Bruce Wayne with the sense that, soon, the meta-humans will be compelled to answer the call to battle. Meanwhile, a funeral is held for Superman, who is recognized in death as the hero he was never fully appreciated as in life. But there are indications that he may not be totally dead just yet…

Batman v. Superman is a fundamentally flawed movie, which is pretty much par for the course with Batman and Superman’s movies (except for 2008’s The Dark Knight). It gives us a terrific Bruce Wayne/Batman (not to mention a decent Alfred as performed by Jeremy Irons), and a not-so-great Superman. The battle scenes are great, but character behavior/motivation is a problem. Particularly depressing is the portrayal of Superman not as the ray of hope he’s been known as through the majority of his existence since 1938, but as a dark, brooding character. That’s supposed to be Batman’s territory! The whole point is for them to have two wildly contrasting outlooks on the world and life in general.

So desperate was DC to compete with Marvel Studios that it got a little too greedy. It’s never a good idea to cross pollinate two completely different comic storylines into one movie. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand did the same thing. So did 2007’s Spider-Man 3. All it does is undermine both arcs. If you’re gonna throw in “The Death of Superman” right after his first meeting with Batman, that’s fine. A little weird, but okay. What you shouldn’t do is pass off their chronologically final confrontation from the comics (“The Dark Knight Returns”) as their first in this movie. It’s rather jarring.

This movie is neither fantastic, nor fantastically awful, although it is clear that this wasn’t the best way to introduce the DCEU (DC Expanded Universe). One thing that Batman v. Superman got fantastically right is its portrayal of Diana Prince/Wonder Woman. Even her theme music is badass! The scene-stealing Gal Gadot’s performance is spot-on; so much so that, by herself, Wonder Woman gave hope that her own adventure might just give DC the boost it needed after this misstep. But that, as I said, is a subject best left for another film review.

Captain America Civil War (2016)

Directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

For the last eight years, since the inception of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the clear favorite in terms of an individual character has been Tony Stark/Iron Man. But, in truth, his movies have only been as good as their lead actor. Remove Robert Downey, Jr. from the equation, and the “Iron Man” franchise is left with mostly average stories to tell. On the other hand the “Captain America” franchise, while it too needed the right guy in the pivotal role, has been less dependent on Chris Evans than its great storytelling. Steve Rogers’ journey from movie to movie has been unlike any that his fellow Avengers have experienced, and none have thus achieved the personal growth that Steve has. That streak continues in “Captain America: Civil War.”

Avengers team members Steve Rogers/Captain America, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) prevent the theft of biological weapons material in Lagos, Nigeria, but at too high a price. The terrorist Brock Rumlow (Frank Grillo), an enemy of Cap’s left over from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” chooses death by suicide bomb over being captured. Wanda does her best to contain the blast, but it still levels a nearby building, resulting in the deaths of many civilians. The team is later paid a visit by Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) who lets them know that the United Nations are drafting a resolution which, when passed, will give the UN control over exactly when and where the Avengers can do their world policing. The news fragments the team philosophically, especially when Tony Stark/Iron Man reveals his intention to sign the accords. Stark is more motivated than most given that it was his creation, the artificial intelligence known as Ultron, which destroyed the Eastern European nation of Sokovia (Wanda Maximoff’s home country) only one year prior. Steve, whose once unyielding faith in his government has become irreparably shattered by mounting betrayals, outright refuses to sign.

Natasha attends the meeting in Vienna where the accords are meant to be finalized, and in the process meets King T’Chaka of Wakanda… whose country suffered several casualties in the incident in Nigeria… and his son, Prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Another terrorist bombing claims the life of the King, and evidence points to Rogers’ old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) a.k.a. the Winter Soldier, a former Hydra sleeper agent who still has yet to shake off his brainwashing. With the limited evidence at hand, T’Challa vows revenge while Steve wants to bring his friend in before the authorities make good on their threat to shoot on sight. The ensuing battle, which also includes Sam Wilson, leads to all four superpowered men being placed under arrest.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, a Sokovian named Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) is in the process of setting his own sequence of plans in motion. He kills the man he used to pose as Barnes for the Vienna bombing as well as Barnes’ former Hydra handler. Next, Zemo maneuvers his way into the Berlin holding facility where Bucky is being held and poses as an interrogating officer. There’s something locked away inside Bucky’s mind… something having to do with a mission he’d performed as the Winter Soldier in 1991… that Zemo needs to know about. Once Zemo gets what he needs, he activates Bucky’s brainwashing to cover his own escape. Eventually, Steve is able to subdue and extract his friend, and discovers what information Zemo was after: the location of a base in Siberia where other Winter Soldiers are currently in cryostasis.

Unwilling to submit to the whims of government approval, Steve assembles the members of the Avengers whom are sympathetic to his cause and they head for the airport. In addition to Rogers, Barnes, Wilson, and Maximoff, this team also includes Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd). A government-approved team of Avengers intercepts and engages them. Led by Tony Stark/Iron Man, this team includes Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, T’Challa/Black Panther, James “Rhodey” Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), the Vision (Paul Bettany), and Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the latter of whom Tony traveled to Queens, New York to recruit. Why Tony couldn’t have made a stop in nearby Hell’s Kitchen while he was at it is beyond me… The resulting spectacular battle results in most of Team Captain America being arrested, while Steve and Bucky escape to Siberia. Team Iron Man, meanwhile, suffers one casualty: An errant blast by the Vision results in Rhodey being partially paralyzed. Natasha, who fought for Tony’s team, regardless must flee after facilitating Steve and Bucky’s departure.

Tony follows Steve and Bucky to Siberia, with T’Challa stealthily trailing behind. There, the other super soldiers are discovered dead, each of them shot through the head by Zemo while still in cryostasis. Zemo doesn’t want an army of super soldiers. Hardly. All he is interested in is revenge against the Avengers for the death of his family, casualties of the team’s climactic battle with Ultron in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” He means for the team to fall apart from within. Aided by footage of a grim 1991 incident, meaningful to Tony and perpetrated by a brainwashed Bucky, Zemo’s plan succeeds. With Tony pitted against Steve and Bucky, the three are nearly killed in the ensuing fight, and wind up going their separate ways. Meanwhile, satisfied that his plan has worked, Zemo moves to attempt suicide, but is halted by T’Challa, who declares that he has decided to forego revenge for his father’s death. It is also strongly implied that T’Challa aids in the jailbreak of Steve’s team, thus turning them into what Marvel Comics fans will recognize as the “Secret Avengers.”

The same shades of grey that drove “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” exist here. Certainly we all have our favorite between Tony Stark/Iron Man and Steve Rogers/Captain America, but in the story presented in “Captain America: Civil War,” it’s not as easy to take sides as you might think. None of the heroes come off as being entirely righteous. Sure, everyone means well, but they are all of them misguided. Even Helmut Zemo, the film’s antagonist, is not your typical black hat villain. Has he done horrible things? Certainly. But he is not an entirely unsympathetic character either, which is more than you can say for most of Marvel’s one-and-done bad guys.

“Captain America” is a rarity among superhero franchises. Unlike most which find themselves starting to decline by the third chapter, this one has only gotten stronger. 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger,” by virtue of being a WWII-era adventure, remains Marvel’s most aesthetically pleasing film. However, in terms of scale, character-growth, and for what it symbolizes in regards to securing the future of the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, none has more successfully dotted its I’s and crossed its T’s than “Captain America: Civil War.” In fact, it is the new faces which are the most enjoyable parts of this movie. Whatever degree of interest I had in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and “Black Panther” was magnified by the impressive appearances of Peter Parker and T’Challa in “Civil War.” In particular, Tom Holland’s wisecracking teenage Peter Parker is really spot-on. I look forward to more from him and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei, who also has a short scene). More time is needed to be able to tell how well that “Captain America: Civil War” will hold up against repeat viewings, but I foresee no problems for this, one of Marvel’s greatest cinematic achievements.

The Incredibles (2004)

Director: Brad Bird

Voices of: Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Spencer Fox, Jason Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Elizabeth Peña, Brad Bird

Can it be that I’ve gone almost three years on this page without reviewing a single animated film? Shocking. The truth of the matter is that I just don’t watch them with the frequency that I once did. Even more surprising is the fact that it’s taken until now for me to have seen 2004’s “The Incredibles” for the first time. Given my love for superhero films in general, that made no sense at all. More to the point, with the premiere of “Captain America: Civil War” only hours away, now seemed like as good a time as any to give “The Incredibles” a look. I’ve spoken often of my disdain for movies with misleading titles. False advertisement really bugs the hell out of me. That’s not a problem here. This superhero family is exactly what they say they are.

In a situation not unlike the one about to befall the heroes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, mounting incidents have begun to sway public opinion against superpowered humans, or ‘supers’ for short. As the lawsuits continue to pile up, the government finally steps in and forces the ‘supers’ into retirement. Some find civilian life a lot harder to handle than others. Fifteen years pass, with Bob and Helen Parr (Craig T. Nelson and Holly Hunter) having officially renounced their powers of super-strength and super-elasticity, and are now married with three children. Helen, the former Elastigirl, wants to live as normal a life as she can even as her two oldest children now exhibit superpowers of their own. Bob, on the other hand, can’t let go of his glory days as Mr. Incredible.  Carrying on the facade of an ordinary man with a desk job, Bob still moonlights as a vigilante with his old friend Lucius Best, a.k.a. Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson). Bob is still so tuned into the seedy goings-on around him that he puts his boss through several walls when he is prevented from putting a stop to a mugging. Naturally, this causes Bob to lose his job, not that he lets Helen know about it.

Bob’s luck seems to change almost instantly, as he is coaxed into resuming his role as Mr. Incredible and given a mission by a woman named Mirage (Elizabeth Peña). He goes to a remote island to destroy a giant robot without knowing from whom this mission came from. Bob doesn’t seem to care so long as he’s free to be himself again. He gets a brand new suit from his old costume designer, Edna Mode (director Brad Bird), who also makes matching costumes for Helen and children Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Spencer Fox). Back on the island, Bob discovers the ugly truth: His new missions are all a sham devised by a jilted fan-turned-enemy. Years ago, Mr. Incredible had been dogged one night by a kid looking to become his sidekick. Mr. Incredible refused. Buddy Pine (Jason Lee) has since grown up into the disturbed, technology-dependent supervillain Syndrome. Buddy’s great scheme is to eliminate all existing ‘supers,’ trick the public into accepting him as a heroic figure by defeating one of his own robots, and then subsequently sell his technology. Thus, once everyone is a ‘super,’ this will be recognized as the new ‘normal.’

With Bob captured, Helen pilots a jet to the island, not realizing that Violet and Dash have stowed away. Though they are children and are sneaky little devils, it is also true that Violet has the powers of invisibility and Dash… naturally… has super speed. So both will come in handy, especially once their plane is detected and shot down. Thinking his family dead, Bob threatens to kill Mirage, a proposition to which Buddy seems indifferent. Not surprisingly, this will lead later to Mirage helping the Parr family escape together. With the help of Lucius, they destroy Buddy’s robot, but their nemesis eludes them, heading to the Parr household to kidnap their infant son Jack-Jack. His plan now is to raise the boy as his evil sidekick. Jack-Jack, once thought to be the only normal member of the Parr family, finally manifests his own powers, that of shapeshifting. As Helen comes to Jack-Jack’s rescue, Bob kills Buddy by hurling the family car at him, causing Buddy to get sucked into the turbine of his getaway plane.

Made before the superhero genre had kicked into the high gear it has enjoyed since 2008, “The Incredibles” works fantastically as an animated film that could just as easily have been a big-budget live-action phenomenon. It’s also a better “Fantastic Four” movie than any of the existing turds which have sullied the good name of one of my favorite comic series. I think first and foremost of “Watchmen,” (from which this movie takes some cues) as another example of a superhero story I’ve read/seen where the costumed vigilantes have arrived at a point in their lives where they are trying to adapt to normal life, which is an interesting concept that “The Incredibles” plays with quite well.

Beyond the great writing and the terrific voice actors, what really makes “The Incredibles” FEEL like a great superhero movie is Michael Giacchino’s wonderful score. As I watched the film, I found it to be close to the kind soundtrack that I would expect to hear in a movie either made or set in the 1960’s. That’s no accident, as I came to find out. In fact, Brad Bird is a fan of both comics and spy movies from that decade, and his first choice to compose the soundtrack for “The Incredibles” was John Barry (who, sadly, declined). Furthermore, in the theatrical trailer for “The Incredibles,” a remix of the first few notes of Barry’s theme from “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” can be heard. Purely by coincidence, OHMSS was the sixth James Bond film just as “The Incredibles” was Pixar’s sixth full-length animated feature. An “Incredibles” sequel is planned for a 2019 release. With the landscape of the superhero genre constantly evolving, one wonders what type of world the Parr family will find themselves in when next we check in on them.

Batman (1989)

Director: Tim Burton

Starring: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, Robert Wuhl, Pat Hingle, Billy Dee Williams, Michael Gough, Jack Palance

Twenty-six summers ago, I wonder if anyone could have envisioned the explosion of comic book/superhero films we see today. Every couple of months or so, either DC or (more likely) Marvel is churning out another one. Back in 1989, however, the now mile-long list of films from this genre was limited to mere inches. Of the few that were in existence, most hadn’t made an exceptionally big splash. In 1986, “Howard the Duck” crashed and burned, and its ashes were doused in urine. It was so bad that Marvel didn’t really get back into the game until more than a decade later. Up to this point, only Superman had really grabbed anyone’s attention at the movies for DC Comics. Any prior big-screen experience for Superman’s Justice League partner had been the 1966 big-screen adaptation of the Adam West “Batman” TV series. Rather than anger fans of that show, I’ll say simply that I like Batman best when he’s not being played for comedy. Finally, in 1989, director Tim Burton would draw not upon the farcical 1960’s, but rather a mix of the Bob Kane/Bill Finger days of the 1940’s and the then-recent Frank Miller Batman stories (as well as Burton’s own brand of surrealism) to give both Batman and superheroes in general a wider audience than they had ever known before.

The orphaned son of Thomas and Martha Wayne, billionaire Bruce Wayne (Michael Keaton) has not been left without the means to carry on nor the motivation to ensure that fewer people in Gotham City should have to live with the horror he has experienced in his life. Having witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just a child, Bruce now patrols the streets of Gotham at night dressed as his alter ego, Batman. Perceived as a mythical figure by the police officers and criminals who’ve yet to cross his path, Batman’s true identity is known only by Bruce’s butler and surrogate father, Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Gough). Even reporter Vicky Vale (Kim Basinger), who wishes to get close enough to Bruce to know his heart and close enough to Batman to get a career-making story, has not a clue that the two are one and the same.

The leading source of organized crime in Gotham City is a gang led by Carl Grissom (Jack Palance). His top lieutenant, Jack Napier (Jack Nicholson), had been carrying on an affair with his boss’s mistress. What Jack didn’t know was that Grissom had already discovered the indiscretion and made plans to remove him from the gang’s future business… permanently. Unfortunately for Grissom… and for Gotham… his plans lead not to Jack’s demise, but to his transformation into the Joker. The man known as Jack Napier displayed aptitude in science, chemistry and art, demonstrating a high level of intelligence, but this was countered by an erratic mental state which gave him homicidal tendencies. As the Joker, this instability becomes amplified (nerve toxins are now his main weapon of choice). His insanity leads him into a love triangle between himself, Vicky Vale, and Bruce Wayne. When Bruce learns of Jack’s role in the death of his parents, as Batman, his vendetta against the Joker becomes about more than just saving innocent lives.

Seeing this movie theatrically with my father at age 7, “Batman” acted as my introduction to all of the film’s major players: Jack Nicholson, Michael Keaton, Kim Basinger, director Tim Burton and composer Danny Elfman. The only familiarity I had going in was with singer Prince, who provided most of the film’s other music not attributed to Elfman. It is this incredible collection of talent and not the film’s simplified story which makes it special in my eyes (that and, of course, the nostalgia factor).

“Batman” would simply not have been what it was with lesser actors. As Vicky Vale (a character which has yet to reappear in any subsequent Batman film), Kim Basinger shows us some of the talent which would eventually win her a Best Supporting Actress award (in 1997, for “L.A. Confidential”). Admittedly, a more recent incarnation of the Joker has caused me to look back and see Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the character for what it is. Rather than slip into the persona of the Joker, Nicholson is more or less playing himself AS the Joker. Doesn’t mean he isn’t fantastic as always. As much of a legend and as much of a scene-stealer as Nicholson is, the real coup in the casting department was in giving the role of Batman/Bruce Wayne to Michael Keaton. At the time, it seemed an unlikely hire, as Keaton was known best for the title role in Burton’s “Beetlejuice.” That character would lead one to think of Keaton then as being a more likely candidate for the Joker. Thank goodness we were wrong because, after all of the films in the series featuring the Caped Crusader (both the good and the bad) that have followed, Keaton remains the definitive Bruce Wayne/Batman. Almost as synomymous with the character is Danny Elfman’s main theme, much in the same way that the John Williams “Superman” theme is.

In addition to being one of the first truly successful films based on a comic book, “Batman” also did its part in the creation of the blockbuster. Oh, it’s true that there were a number of movies that had come before which made a ton of money for their studio. But it wasn’t really until after the summer of 1989 that we started seeing movies making $200 million, $300 million, and now sometimes $400-$600 million on a more annual basis. You can attribute this to inflated ticket prices if you must… but the numbers speak for themselves, regardless.

If I had to rely on just the story, there are ways in which I could pick “Batman” apart if I tried hard enough. Particularly in the climax, there are some small things which bug me, such as how the Joker can know he was “a kid” when he killed the Batman’s parents since he doesn’t even know who Batman really is, or how it is that Joker’s thugs could anticipate that their boss would choose the bell tower of the church when running from Batman. It’s also somewhat strange that more of an emphasis is placed on the Joker’s origins than Batman’s, but whatever. Overall, it’s still a lot of fun, and worth sharing the experience with our children as our parents did for our generation.

Avengers Age of Ultron (2015)

Director: Joss Whedon

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, James Spader, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Mackie, Hayley Atwell, Idris Elba, Stellan Skarsgård

Watching the trailers attached to this movie, the one which struck me as being particularly relevant was the one for “Terminator: Genisys” (I truly wish it were a typo). Both the “Terminator” franchise and “Age of Ultron” deal with an artificial intelligence designed as a peace-keeping force which, almost immediately upon its activation, selects the entire human race for extinction. Both Ultron and SkyNet find ways to evolve their original programming in order to make things that much more difficult for us. Because they begin their plot of mass genocide in their respective early stages of existence, the two A.I.’s can each be accused of behaving like children: erratic, insolent, illogical and, most of all, emotional. The one thing they fear the most is their own death. Had the Terminators come up against the likes of the Avengers, I doubt there would have been room for three sequels and a reboot. Thankfully, there’s a lot more going on here than just the story of Man endangering his future by trying to save it.

As the movie begins, we join our heroes mid-mission, in a very James Bond-like opening that sees them storming the fortress of Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Of course, Strucker is hardly a match for Earth’s mightiest. He knows this, which is why the HYDRA agent has been running experiments designed to create super-powered beings. To achieve this, he uses Loki’s scepter, left behind in the rubble at the Battle of New York. Of his test subjects, only the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen), who volunteered for the procedure have actually survived. Wanda has the power of telekinesis/mind-manipulation and can generate powerful bursts of energy to hurl at enemies, whereas Pietro runs at speeds faster than the blink of an eye. They’re not interested in Strucker’s plans, as they have their own score to settle with one Avenger in particular. It seems the Maximoff home in the Eastern European country of Sokovia was destroyed some years ago by weapons designed by Stark Industries, making orphans of the Twins. Although the Avengers retrieve the scepter, Wanda plants the seeds of their potential doom inside Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.)’s head.

Looking for a way to both keep the world safe and to allow for he and his friends to retire, Tony is about to take the next technological leap. Describing it as an “iron suit around the world,” Tony enlists the aid of Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) in designing the ultimate peace-keeping force, Ultron (James Spader). Making use of Loki’s scepter, they do this without consultation from the other four Avengers. It’s the age-old tale of doing something without stopping to consider whether or not you should. At a party in the Avengers Tower, following an amusing moment where all of the mortal men in the group try their best to lift Thor’s hammer, Ultron first makes his presence felt, disabling the J.A.R.V.I.S. program (which he perceives as a personal threat) and declaring himself free of his puppet strings.

Making off with Loki’s scepter, Ultron gathers supplies, stopping at Strucker’s base in Sokovia to make upgrades to his armor and at an African shipyard where he can obtain the Earth’s rarest metal, vibranium, which will play a part in his endgame. Ultron and the Twins are confronted by the Avengers, but Wanda’s mind tricks affect each member of the team on a deep and personal level. Bruce Banner is so affected that he turns into the Hulk and levels an entire town. Tony uses a special suit of armor designed for just such a contingency to subdue the Hulk, but the damage has been done. News of the Hulk’s warpath has gone global, and the Avengers avoid the resulting backlash by going into hiding at the family home of team member Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), a married father of two with one more on the way.

Once at the Barton farm, the nature of the relationships of the various team members becomes evident. In particular, the clashing ideologies of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans) are pushed even further into the light (and serve as a set-up for the next “Captain America” movie), while Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bruce Banner acknowledge a growing attraction between them. Natasha sees in Bruce the same fractured soul that lies within her. Each of them has been spending a great deal of time trying to repair damage done to them in their respective pasts. They are both “monsters” in their own way. They talk of leaving together after Ultron is defeated.

A turning point occurs when Ultron is in the early stages of uploading himself into his intended final body. Realizing that the A.I.’s deadly goals extend beyond the mere extinguishing of the Avengers, Wanda and Pietro abandon Ultron and side with their former foes. Acquiring the android body which Ultron meant for himself, Tony uploads the once-believed destroyed J.A.R.V.I.S. program into it, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) lends a jolt of electricity to help bring the android to life. It appears that, all along, Loki’s scepter had been powered by one of the six Infinity Stones (four of which we’ve seen up to this point), which is now fitted on the brow of the newly birthed Vision (Paul Bettany), a creature whose temperment and philosophy run in stark contrast to that of Ultron. The Vision is so incorruptible in fact that he can lift Thor’s hammer, a feat once thought possible only for the God of Thunder himself. Along with the Vision and the Maximoffs, the Avengers (minus Natasha, who is in Ultron’s clutches) gather together for one final confrontation with Ultron in Sokovia, where they mean to save the entire planet.

Of course, it wouldn’t be an Avengers movie if there weren’t someone or something that needed avenging. The movie is not casualty-free, but that does not keep it from having many lighthearted, laugh-out-loud moments. There are several running gags. One of these involves the group taking every opportunity they can to poke fun at their leader, Captain America, for having earlier objected to Tony’s use of foul language. Moments like this are vintage Joss Whedon, who also brilliantly wrote/directed the first “Avengers.” The six actors who made the first film so much fun are all back and in top form. Some who got a little short-changed last time (Jeremy Renner!) are thankfully given more to do in “Age of Ultron.” Of course, Robert Downey Jr. is still the man! Among the newly added characters, my favorite is undoubtedly Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff, although I also look forward to more from Paul Bettany’s Vision. Special kudos also goes to James Spader, always great at what he does, proving it once again as the menacing machine-gone-wrong, Ultron. Some of Marvel’s villains have been weak, but Spader isn’t one of them.

For right now, I’m still more fond of the first “Avengers,” though that could be due to the fact that I’ve seen it several times in the last three years. Like many of the previous Marvel Comics Universe films, I expect that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” will play better on the small screen, when I’m not distracted by fellow audience members and can better focus on the action. There’s so much happening that you’re bound to miss something just by staring at the wrong part of the screen. Nonetheless, I found myself very entertained. The best of intentions sometimes results in disaster, but thankfully this is not true in the case of “Age of Ultron.”